California endures more wildfires, 1 sparked by a hot car
JURUPA VALLEY — A stolen car sparked a wildfire in a bone-dry field Thursday as two of Southern California's quintessential themes — car chases and gusty Santa Ana winds — collided with potentially devastating consequences.
The hot car ignited dry grass in a field in the city of Jurupa Valley east of Los Angeles and strong winds that have menaced the region quickly spread the flames, burning homes and forcing residents to flee.
The frightening scenario was among the latest to erupt as exceptionally dry conditions and vicious gusts have contributed to destructive fires that forced tens of thousands of evacuations across the state while other Californians endured dayslong deliberate power outages aimed at preventing electric lines from sparking fires.
Several blazes broke out in the heavily populated inland region east of Los Angeles as the strong, seasonal Santa Ana winds continued to gust up to 60 mph (96 kph) were predicted to last until the evening before they fade away.
Riverside police were chasing suspected car thieves after midnight when the driver tried to shake them by plowing through fields and lots, Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback said. The damaged vehicle pulled to a stop in a field in Jurupa Valley, where the driver and passenger bolted.
The two men, both wanted on outstanding warrants, were caught as heat from the vehicle caused grasses to combust. Authorities plan to charge them with arson.
"We put that burden on the crooks," Railsback said, explaining the criminal charge. "They're the ones leading this chase."
The blaze spread to 300 acres (121 hectares) and destroyed three homes and two outbuildings, the Riverside County Fire Department said. Evacuations were ordered.
The fire came as another broke out in neighboring San Bernardino County and the day after several other blazes forced evacuations in the region, including one that circled the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley and another in Jurupa Valley that forced the evacuation of two mobile home parks and a psychiatric nursing care facility.
Elderly patients wearing breathing masks and wrapped in blankets were taken out of the Riverside Heights Healthcare Center in wheelchairs and gurneys as smoke swirled overhead. The blaze grew to 200 acres (80 hectares) in size before it was stopped.
"There was one moment when I could see nothing but dark smoke and I was like, 'We're going to die,'" said Qiana McCracken, assistant director of nursing.
California has been under a fire siege for several weeks as strong, dry winds out of the desert have fanned flames at both ends of the state and prompted widespread power outages to prevent electric lines from sparking infernos.
Electrical equipment has caused some of California's worst wildfires, including last year's fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
More than 350,000 Californians statewide remained without power as part of an effort by utility companies to prevent trees and vegetation from blowing into powerlines and causing fires.
The waves of dayslong outages have been angrily condemned by state officials and consumers.
In the Northern California city of Novato, at least 20 seniors with wheelchairs and walkers were essentially trapped in the dark in a low-income apartment complex during a two-day power shut-off.
PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson acknowledged hardships but said outages will be necessary in the future as seasonal fire threats increase.