California wildfire prompts evacuation order for thousands

Hills smolder after the Highland Fire passed through, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in Aguanga, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Hills smolder after the Highland Fire passed through, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in Aguanga, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

AGUANGA, Calif. (AP) -- Hundreds of firefighters aided by aircraft Tuesday battled a wind-driven wildfire that damaged or destroyed at least nine buildings in rural Southern California and prompted authorities to order 4,000 residents to evacuate.

Gusty Santa Ana winds spread the Highland Fire over 3.5 square miles of brushy hills near the Riverside County hamlet of Aguanga after it broke out Monday afternoon.

Three structures were confirmed destroyed and six others were damaged, said Riverside County Fire Department spokesperson Jeff LaRusso.

Luis Quinonez was away when a house he owned burned to the ground. He was trying to keep his spirits up.

"It's not for sale anymore," Quinonez, covered in soot, joked in an interview.

He also lost 13 vehicles he had collected to sell. A second house he owns across the street was untouched. No one was hurt, he added, and his dogs, cats, chickens and roosters were also OK.

The terrain, streaked with pink from aerial retardant drops, was marked with signs of other firefighting successes. Scorched earth stopped at a white picket fence around a large horse stable. A nearby olive oil company also survived.

No injuries were reported. The cause was under investigation.

The Highland Fire erupted as Southern California experienced its first significant Santa Ana wind conditions of the season. The witheringly dry winds typically form as air flows from the the interior of the West and descends to the Pacific Coast during the fall, often stoking destructive wildfires.

The fire was reported at about 12:45 p.m. Monday and about 1,300 homes and 4,000 residents were put under evacuation orders. The region is sparsely populated but there are horse ranches and a large mobile home site.

Air tankers, helicopters and bulldozers were called in to fight the fire, one of the few large and active blazes to have erupted so far in California this year.

Southern California Edison was considering cutting power to 144,000 customers in six counties to prevent fires in the event wind damages electrical equipment, but fewer than 300 customers were affected by public safety power shutoffs early Tuesday.

In a sign of improving conditions, the National Weather Service said a wind advisories for the region would expire by 8 p.m. Tuesday or earlier. Red flag warnings for critical fire weather conditions in parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties were expected to be canceled by early afternoon.

photo A field and hills smolder after the Highland Fire passed through, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in Aguanga, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
photo A photojournalist walks among the flames of a wildfire in rural Aguanga, Calif. Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Anjali Sharif-Paul/The Orange County Register via AP)
photo A photojournalist walks among the flames of a wildfire in rural Aguanga, Calif. Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Anjali Sharif-Paul/The Orange County Register via AP)
photo A Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department firefighter surveys for instructions while battling wildfire in rural Aguanga, Calif. Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Anjali Sharif-Paul/The Orange County Register via AP)
photo Flames from a wildfire engulf a residential building in rural Aguanga, Calif., Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Anjali Sharif-Paul/The Orange County Register via AP)
photo Firefighters douse flames while battling a wildfire called the Highland Fire in Aguanga, Calif., Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. A wildfire fueled by gusty Santa Ana winds ripped through rural land southeast of Los Angeles on Monday, forcing thousands of people from their homes, fire authorities said. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)
photo Francis Lopez douses flames with a bucket of water as a wildfire called the Highland Fire burns through his property in Aguanga, Calif., Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. A wildfire fueled by gusty Santa Ana winds ripped through rural land southeast of Los Angeles on Monday, forcing thousands of people from their homes, fire authorities said. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)
photo Burned vehicles and a mobile home are left charred by the Highland Fire on Luis Quinonez' property, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in Aguanga, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
photo A burned vehicle is seen on Luis Quinonez property after the Highland Fire passed through Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in Aguanga, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)