Southern California Fire Grows to Nearly 30,000 Acres

The Apple Fire continues to burn through dry brush in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in Southern California on Friday. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

PIONEERTOWN, Calif. (CN) — More than 29,000 acres have burned in Southern California’s Riverside and San Bernardino counties in the week since a diesel truck exhaust pipe sparked a wildfire, spurred by triple-digit temperatures.

The Morongo Valley, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, is choked with smoke from the Apple Fire and large swaths of the area face evacuation warnings along with the desert communities of Forest Falls, Rimrock and Pioneertown.

On Friday, firefighters working the east side of the blaze in San Bernardino County burned vegetation ahead of the fire to starve it of fuel. The fire originated in the Cherry Valley community in Riverside County seven days ago, when witnesses said they saw a “diesel operated vehicle” kick up hot exhaust into dry brush, according to Cal Fire.

A week later, a thick miasma blankets the area, creating poor air quality conditions. One firefighter was reported injured Thursday and over 2,600 personnel battle the blaze that continues to move east, away from the communities of Banning and Beaumont.

The western-themed community of Pioneertown, with its wooden walkways, saloons and saddle shops built for Hollywood film productions in the 1940s, could be evacuated if the fire crosses over the Whitewater drainage, according to Cal Fire.

A large Cal Fire map hangs outside the Pioneertown post office. Mike Kennedy of Joshua Tree pulled up in his car on the sandy road and said, “I just came to see the map.”

Kennedy acknowledged getting some information about the evacuation warning online, but he struck up a conversation with Ronnie Norton of Yucca Valley. Norton points to her street on the map, which is right near the evacuation order zone.

Residents meet at the Pioneertown Post Office to read updates on the Apple Fire evacuation zones on Friday. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

“I don’t like that. Well, I don’t like that so much is burning,” said Norton.

Kennedy said ash came down hard the last few days. Wearing cloth face coverings, he and Norton reminisced about the last big fire that swept through the area.

For many residents, memories of the 2006 Sawtooth Complex Fire sting fresh. That blaze was sparked by lightning in dry brush and practically put out when strong winds swept it back up and through the area. Much of the area’s iconic vegetation, including juniper and Joshua trees, burned.

Thomas Alband, who runs the local pottery shop and has lived in the area for 20 years, recalled how the fire practically snuck up on him in 2006 as he watered down his home and his neighbor’s trees.

“I look down the street and there’s this wall of fire coming my way, as tall as the telephone poles,” Alband said. “The most horrifying and beautiful thing I have ever seen. I was just stunned, and it took a burning sage bush to singe me back to my senses.”

The fire spared the homes of Alband and his neighbor.

Cody Kennedy, who runs the General Mercantile Store, said the skies over Pioneertown have cleared up in the last few days.

Smoke from the Apple Fire hangs over Morongo Valley in Southern California. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

“Earlier in the week there were charred leaves falling down on the street,” said Kennedy. “We’re on evacuation warning, so we’re just waiting for any more updates.”

Capt. Fernando Herrera with Cal Fire said efforts are being made to contain the fire at lower elevations and to keep the flames from being picked up by the wind. The fire continues to make its way northeast into the undeveloped wilderness and Herrera said if it continues north it could threaten the Morongo Basin.

In total, 18 helicopters, 284 fire engines, 24 bulldozers and 38 water trucks are assigned to the Apple Fire, which is 30% contained.

In Los Angeles County, the Saugus Fire has burned a little over 200 acres and is 50% contained, according to the LA County Fire Department.

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