Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Fires Rage Across Southern California, Driven by Ferocious 50 MPH ‘Satan’ Winds

Wildfires driven by strong Santa Ana winds raged across Southern California for a fourth day, with a new blaze breaking out early Thursday that destroyed several foothill homes in the city of San Bernardino.

(CN) – Wildfires driven by strong Santa Ana winds raged across Southern California for a fourth day, with a new blaze breaking out early Thursday that destroyed several foothill homes in the city of San Bernardino.

Residents fled their homes shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday, as 40-50 mph winds picked up and fanned a wildfire in north San Bernardino, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The Hillside Fire destroyed six homes and two more structures in a residential neighborhood, according to fire officials.

Strong winds carried embers throughout the foothill neighborhood off Highway 18, leaving behind telltale scorch marks where they landed.

A two-story home saw the sun rise Thursday while three surrounding homes were badly damaged or destroyed.

Outside his home just down the street from two homes that were gutted by the fire, Harold Montalvo swept leaves and ash from his driveway.

Montalvo woke up to the smell of smoke Wednesday night. Then his neighbors banged on his door to tell him about the fire.

"That's when I saw the flames on the hillside. We left. It was blazing," said Montalvo, holding his yorkshire-chihuahua mix, Guy. "It was chaos. We had about 15 minutes to get all out stuff. I got my dogs and parked at a donut shop."

Montalvo waited about 10 hours before he was allowed back home. He's grateful the firefighters were able to hold back the fire. He will continue to sweep because he wants to clean the yard, make sure the grass is wet and the leaves are all swept up so they can't catch fire.

Tracy Martinez with San Bernardino County Fire Department said while the winds have died down for the day, strong winds are forecast through the weekend.

"We're still not out of the danger," says Martinez.

For Jacque Williams and her brothers-in-law Tim and Jeff Oborny, adrenaline carried them into the afternoon as they ignored evacuation orders to protect their family avocado farm with water hoses and other equipment.

Williams walked along the edge of the grove where several avocado trees were badly burned and a fresh burn scar sliced across the property.

“The grove was badly hurt, but we were able to stop it,” Williams said, choking up. “At this point I’m reluctantly optimistic. We know that winds can pick up at any time. That’s scary. This is better than it was. It was like Armageddon when I got here this morning.”

The family says they used their agricultural water lines to create a defensive perimeter around their home, just like they did in 2003 with the Old Fire which also ripped through San Bernardino.

Jeff Oborny says his brother Tim hasn’t slept much since the Santa Ana winds began to kick up about two weeks ago: Tim walked off a small ledge the other night right into a bush.

“I had to carry him out, because he was so out of it, just watching for the fires,” said Jeff Oborny. “If he wasn’t looking for the fires this morning, we wouldn’t have been able to save the house.”

Tim Oborny said police officers made clear the consequences of refusing to heed the order to flee.

“We were told by the sheriffs that if we stood, we would be on our own,” said Tim Oborny.

Jeff Oborny added, “We understood that. I don’t know if we could do this all over again in another 16 years. We’ll see.”

By afternoon the Hillside Fire was 50% contained at 200 acres and the winds had subsided, but emergency officials said they would still be keeping an eye on the winds. Evacuation orders remain in place for some 1,300 people in nearly 500 homes, while the National Weather Service said an extreme Red Flag Warning will be in effect through Thursday evening.

A fast-moving wildfire on Thursday evening in Santa Paula, California quickly grew to 4,000 acres and prompted evacuations for the immediate area in Ventura County, the second wildfire burning within the region.

The new fire, dubbed the Maria Fire, was first reported shortly after 6 p.m. and is burning on South Mountain above the city of Santa Paula.

Courthouse News correspondent Julianna Krokak said she saw smoke on her drive home and then saw the flames as she approached her home.

“The wind is not blowing as hard as it has been in the last few days. We can’t smell the smoke, but we can clearly see the flames,” Krokak said.

In 2017, the Thomas Fire burned through multiple counties and was considered one of the largest fires in the state’s history. That wildfire first began north of Santa Paula, but Krokak said the image of the Thomas Fire is still fresh in many people’s minds who live in the area.

“It’s still a major concern for all of us. Many people still have PTSD from that whole episode,” said Krokak, who added that her utility company Southern California Edison has notified customers they may lose power.

Southern California Edison said over 64,000 customers lost electricity as part of its safety power shutoff program. The utility has notified 223,000 customers throughout Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties they may lose power as well.

Throughout Southern California some evacuations were lifted as containment numbers grew for some of the wildfires, but it was still a wait-and-see game for many due to the Santa Ana winds.

In Ventura County, the 1,700-acre Easy Fire has forced 30,000 people out of their homes and 2,000 others have been told to be ready to flee. Containment stands at just 10%.

The Getty Fire in Los Angeles County has burned over 700 acres across the affluent West L.A. neighborhoods of Brentwood and Bel-Air. With containment at 39%, most evacuation orders have been lifted according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. The blaze sparked when a tree branch fell on a power line, causing the line to arc.

In Northern California, with the Kincade Fire has consumed nearly 77,000 acres over eight days in Sonoma County. Improved weather conditions have helped firefighters gain the upper hand, and containment stood at 60% Thursday morning.

Evacuation orders remain in place for some 5,000 residents, however, and police say they have arrested 10 people for illegally entering evacuation zones.

All locations of the Sonoma County Superior Court – except the Juvenile Justice Center – have been closed since Oct. 30 due to the blaze and will remain so until at least Monday, according to the court’s website. Only emergency ex parte applications and emergency requests for restraining orders are being accepted, and only at the Petaluma branch.

Mendocino County Superior Court also experienced closures, but because pre-emptive power shutdowns, not fire. That court reopens Friday.

Categories / Regional

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.