Apple Fire grows in Southern California: 20,500 acres scorched, 7,800 ordered to evacuate
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – More than a thousand Southern California firefighters and multiple aircraft were working Sunday to battle the Apple Fire near Beaumont, California, which has spread to more than 20,000 acres, sent smoke drifting to Arizona and threatens thousands of homes in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The massive blaze, which began Friday evening as two smaller fires that eventually merged, has continued to grow, fed by low humidity, a slight breeze, thick vegetation and triple-digit temperatures.
By midday Sunday, the Apple Fire had scorched 20,516 acres — more than 32 square miles — destroyed three structures and was 5% contained by 8 p.m. Sunday night. About 1,360 firefighters and multiple aircraft were battling the blaze and dropping water and fire retardant from the air. Earlier Sunday, some official reports had said the fire was 12% contained, though Cal Fire Capt. Fernando Herrera confirmed there has never been any containment.
About 7,800 people from 2,600 residences have been ordered to evacuate, officials said late Saturday. No injuries have been reported.
Smoke from the fire has drifted as far away as the city of Globe, Arizona, roughly 400 miles away, according to the National Weather Service's Phoenix office. The main body of smoke is visible across the south-central and southwest regions of the state.
Fire officials say the cause remains under investigation.
Herrera said the fire is burning on two sides. The western edge is in the Forest Falls area in San Bernardino County; the eastern flank has headed toward the Morongo Band of Mission Indians' reservation in Riverside County.
As of Sunday morning, a portion of the reservation remained under an evacuation order, while other sections fell under a warning. Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, located slightly to the south, has not been affected by evacuation notices.
Throughout Saturday night, Herrera said, firefighters and bulldozers built fire lines in anticipation of continued aerial attacks.
"It is steep terrain, rugged terrain," he said. "Access is limited. We can't really get to it on foot. We rely a lot on the aircraft to do the work during the day."
Eye-level northwesterly winds up to 10 mph were forecast in the fire area Sunday night; these winds are closest to the ground and most likely to affect the fire's behavior. Overnight, those winds were forecast to drop to 3 to 5 mph, said James Brotherton, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego.
Westerly winds forecast for Monday will be more concerning, Brotherton said. Daytime winds on Monday are expected to be around 10 mph but could get up to 25 mph around the ridges, the higher elevations in the fire area. By Monday night, those winds could pick up to 30 mph.
“The nearby ridges, we are always concerned about how strong those winds are because they could affect the fire area,” he said.
If the wind pushes the fire east toward the San Gorgonio pass – even at just 10 to 15 mph – that could change the outlook of the fire, because the pass already is a natural wind tunnel.
As of Saturday night, the only structures lost were a single-family home and two outbuildings near Avenida Miravilla in Cherry Valley.
Herrera said an assessment team will be looking for any other damaged structures where the fire had burned.
"It's so hot and it's so intense in some of these areas that haven't been mopped up that it's hard to get in to make an assessment," he said.
Evacuations during a pandemic
Officials said that in addition to the blaze, they are mindful of protecting evacuees from the coronavirus pandemic. An evacuation center is being used as more of a check-in point rather than an actual shelter.
On Friday night, 31 people checked in and seven families were placed in hotel rooms, according to John Medina, shelter supervisor with the American Red Cross.
Banning resident Martin Yedwalsky, 50, and his family spent the night at a Redlands Super 8 motel after evacuating Saturday afternoon. He would have preferred staying home but decided to flee out of concern for his 89-year-old father, who is in a wheelchair.
They were joined by Yedwalsky’s 20- and 18-year-old sons, whom he praised for calmly evacuating. They spent the night watching a Los Angeles Lakers game, but Yedwalsky's elderly father made it clear he wanted to return home as they watched the fire burn from afar.
“You could see the actual fire from Redlands. That’s 25 miles away,” Yedwalsky said. “I’m worried, but what can you do? I got my loved ones with me. Everything else can be replaced.”
Previous reporting by Desert Sun reporters Maria Sestito and Brian Blueskye contributed to this report. City News Service also contributed to this report.
Reach reporters Shane Newell (@journoshane), Maria Sestito (@RiaSestito), and Brian Blueskye (firstname.lastname@example.org)