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Homes evacuated as Southern California wildfire grows

Thousands of people were under evacuation orders on Sunday after a wildfire in mountains about 75 miles east of Los Angeles exploded in size, and crews totaling 1,300 firefighters battled flames in triple-digit heat.

California’s first wildfire of the season consumed more than 32 square miles, or 20,000 acres, of dry brush and timber in Riverside County, while plumes of smoke were visible from as far as Phoenix, Arizona, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Crews lost control of the blaze after a software glitch mistakenly led officials to believe that the fire was 12 per cent contained.

There were no reports of casualties, and the only damage so far has been to two buildings and one home.

The edges of the fire are burning on rugged hills that are hard for crews to reach, authorities said.

Dense vegetation fueled fire burning near homes, said Fernando Herrera, fire chief in Riverside County, while hot and dry conditions on Sunday will help the fire keep burning.

A probe is under way as to the cause of the fire, which officials said may have been set deliberately.

There was zero containment at 3pm local time on the West Coast.

Officials allowed flames to run up the side of Mount San Gorgonio, an 11,000-foot peak, because it wasn’t safe to let crews work in such steep, rugged terrain, said Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for the United States Forest Service.

‘We don’t want to put firefighters in a dangerous situation,’ Cox told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. 

‘It’s burning in a straight line up a mountain.’

The blaze began as two adjacent fires reported Friday evening in Cherry Valley, an unincorporated area near the city of Beaumont about 85 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Flames leapt along brushy ridge tops and came close to homes while firefighters attacked it from the ground and air.

One home and two outbuildings were destroyed, Cal Fire said. No injuries were reported.

Evacuation orders and advisories were issued for about 8,000 people in mountain, canyon and foothill neighborhoods in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. 

Campgrounds and hiking trails were closed in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area of the San Bernardino National Forest.

A huge smoke plume was visible for miles around and contributed to poor air quality.

The mercury hit 109 degrees on Sunday in nearby Palm Springs. 

The National Weather Service said ‘dangerously hot conditions’ were expected to continue because of high pressure over much of Southern California.

To the north, the Pond Fire in San Luis Obispo County was 10 per cent contained Sunday after burning more than 2 square miles of brush east of Santa Margarita. 

The blaze destroyed two structures but officials said it was unclear whether they were homes.

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