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Southern California wildfire prompts evacuation order for thousands as Santa Ana winds fuel flames

AGUANGA, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire fueled by gusty Santa Ana winds ripped through rural land southeast of Los Angeles, forcing about 4,000 people from their homes, fire authorities said.

The so-called Highland Fire erupted at about 12:45 p.m. Monday in dry, brushy hills near the unincorporated Riverside County hamlet of Aguanga. As of early Tuesday, the fire had grown to 3.5 square miles (9 square kilometers) and was not contained, officials said in a social media post.

About 1,300 homes and 4,000 residents were under evacuation orders, fire spokesman Jeff LaRusso said Monday. Evacuation orders and warnings remained in place Tuesday morning, officials said.

The fire had destroyed three buildings and damaged six others but it wasn’t clear whether any were homes. The region is sparsely populated but there are horse ranches and a large mobile home site, LaRusso said.

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No injuries were reported. The cause was under investigation.

A structure is engulfed in flames as a wildfire called the Highland Fire burns 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)A structure is engulfed in flames as a wildfire called the Highland Fire burns 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)Firefighters hold hose line 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)Firefighters hold hose line 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)

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

The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for the region through Tuesday night, forecasting winds of 15 to 25 mph (24 to 40 kph) with gusts to 50 mph (80 kph). The strongest winds are expected in foothills and adjacent valleys.

On Monday, winds of 20 to 25 mph (32 to 40 kph) with some higher gusts drove the flames and embers through grass and brush that were dried out by recent winds and low humidity so that it was “almost like kindling” for the blaze, LaRusso said.

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The winds were expected to ease somewhat overnight and fire crews would attempt to box in the blaze, LaRusso said.

But, he added: “Wind trumps everything. Hopefully the forecast holds.”

A large air tanker, bulldozers and other resources were called in to fight the fire, one of the few large and active blazes to have erupted so far in California’s year-round fire season, LaRusso said.

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)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)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)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)

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Southern California was seeing its first significant Santa Ana wind condition. The strong, hot, dry, dust-bearing winds typically descend to the Pacific Coast from inland desert regions during the fall. They have fueled some of the largest and most damaging fires in recent California history.

The weather service issued a red flag warning of extreme fire danger through Tuesday afternoon for parts of Los Angeles and Riverside counties.