PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Authorities said Monday that the Apple Fire, which has burned more than 26,000 acres in Southern California, was caused by "hot objects" emanating from a vehicle tailpipe.
Cal Fire officials said a diesel-fueled vehicle "emitting burning carbon from the exhaust system" had been identified as the source of the blaze. Authorities say they confirmed the cause after interviews with "multiple independent witnesses," along with unspecified physical evidence.
Officials said no suspect had been taken into custody, and they were asking people with information on a vehicle with mechanical problems or "unusual smoke emitting from it" to contact investigators.
The Apple Fire, which began Friday, had grown to 26,850 acres Tuesday – more than 41 square miles – and continued to threaten homes. Only 15% of its perimeter was contained as more than 2,500 firefighting personnel battled the blaze and dropped water and fire retardant from the air.
The blaze, which began as three smaller fires that eventually merged, was fed by low humidity, a slight breeze, thick vegetation and triple-digit temperatures.
Flames burned east through “very steep, rugged hillsides which is not accessible to firefighting vehicles,” fire officials said in an online update. Riverside County Cal Fire Chief Bill Weiser, briefing local residents on Monday night, reported "slow but steady" progress battling the fire.
So far, one injury has been reported, a firefighter who suffered a flash burn when opening the fuel cap on his chainsaw. The fire had destroyed 12 structures as of Tuesday. “It’s a miracle no one else lost a home, because the fire burned 5 feet from the doors,” Lt. Al Campa of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said Monday.
Mike Minton of the California incident management team said most of the fire's growth on Monday was on its northwestern and northeastern portions, particularly in the Millard Canyon area on the eastern side of the fire's perimeter.
Authorities provided conflicting information about whether area residents would be subject to targeted power outages meant to reduce the risk of electrical equipment sparking new blazes.
Isaias live updates: Tornadoes and heavy rain; half a million powerless in Mid-Atlantic
Cal Fire Chief Todd Hopkins told the public during Monday night's community information meeting that some customers would have their power cut.
Villegas said as many as 200 customers experienced power outages Monday because of the fire, but that number had been reduced to about 30 by evening. Those outages were caused by the fire damaging power lines close to the burn area, he said.
The blaze created thick smoke that covered the Coachella Valley and traveled at least as far as Phoenix.
Authorities reiterated Monday evening that Pioneertown may need to evacuate if westerly winds pick up.
Westerly winds forecast for the rest of the week were concerning, said Matt Moreland, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego. Winds near the fire could gust up to 25 mph, with some isolated gusts reaching 30 mph, especially in the afternoons and evenings, he said.
"The bad news is the wind," Moreland said, explaining, "it's near an area where we get some of our strongest winds year-round."
"The good news is temperatures are going to trend cooler as we head through the week," he added.
Temperatures across the area are expected to drop about 10 degrees by Wednesday, and humidity should increase, he said.
'We're in for a bad and rocky ride': Ex-WHO doctor who helped eradicate smallpox predicts COVID-19 turmoil for years
'It looked like the end of the world'
Richard Clark, 75, stood on charred soil watering a tree in Banning Monday afternoon. Much of his property, including a row of yellow and red roses that lined his fence, burned Saturday in the Apple Fire.
"There was about 30 minutes on Saturday where it was unclear if it was all right or not," Clark said. He lost a shed, but his house remained intact – some of the paint is blistered and the roof is scorched on its western side. Otherwise, he said, it's fine.
Clark and his wife have stayed the last few nights with friends in Palm Springs, not far from where they used to live.
"This is probably my fifth fire," he said, beginning to describe a big fire in Malibu back in the mid-'70s. They had seen the flames then and had to rush out of the house quickly, but they came out alright in that one, too. Saturday, though, was still scary, he said.
"It looked like the end of the world," he said, referring to the mushroom-like smoke cloud funneling over the area overheard Saturday.
"Short of a hurricane, that's the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life," he said. "The clouds were swirling."
Most of the trees – and even the roses, he said, will come back, he said. If they don't, he will replant them.
Evacuations during a pandemic
Evacuation orders have been issued for:
- Residents north of Wilson Street, east of Sunset Avenue and west of Hathaway Street.
- Cherry Valley residents living north of Dutton Street, east of Oak Glen Road and south of County Line Road, and for those living north of Cherry Valley Boulevard, west of Highland Springs Avenue and east of Beaumont Avenue.
- The community of Oak Glen in San Bernardino County.
Cal Fire issued an evacuation warning for:
- Residents living north of Morongo Road, east of Millard Canyon Road and west of Whitewater Canyon Road.
- Forest Falls, Pioneertown and Rim Rock.
An evacuation warning means mandatory evacuation orders could come with "little or no notice," officials said.
Eight families – a total of 28 people – had checked in to an evacuation center as of Monday, said Red Cross spokesman David Foust. Eighty-one people were housed by the Red Cross on Sunday night, he said.
"Things have been a little bit quieter today," he said. "Certainly it was pretty busy the first couple of days."
Backlash from Trump, Pelosi: Deborah Birx faces scrutiny as White House coronavirus coordinator
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Apple Fire caused by objects from vehicle tailpipe, authorities say