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Apple fire in Riverside County grows to 20,000 acres; winds expected to pick up this afternoon

California’s first major wildfire of the year grew to more than 20,000 acres over the weekend, destroying one home, forcing thousands to be evacuated and sending up a plume of smoke so massive that it generated its own winds, authorities said.

The Apple fire in Riverside County was burning up steep and rugged hillsides as it spread north and east toward the San Gorgonio Wilderness while continuing to threaten homes to the south.

The fire’s size remained stable throughout most of Sunday, burning at least 20,516 acres. It was 0% contained as of 3 p.m.

Multiple evacuation orders and warnings remained in place Sunday in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Roughly 7,800 residents in over 2,500 households were ordered to evacuate, according to April Newman, a public information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Riverside County Fire Department.

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The terrain is characterized by a web of narrow canyons and drainage channels, which has created the potential for extremely active fire behavior, said Lisa Cox, fire information officer for the San Bernardino National Forest.

“What we saw yesterday was a perfect example of that,” she said, referring to a large pyrocumulus cloud that mushroomed up from the fire and into the sky on Saturday. The towering spectacle, which creates its own turbulent weather, could be seen all the way in Los Angeles.

The cloud pushes embers down and blows them in all directions, creating the potential for rapid and unpredictable spread, Cox said. “The concern with that is that firefighters cannot control what that plume of smoke does,” she said. “Firefighters cannot control when it’s going up in the sky and coming down in all directions.”

Officials anticipated similarly extreme fire behavior on Sunday. Most of the developed areas being threatened by the fire were along its southern flank, and the fire was expected to grow further in that direction as winds picked up later in the day, Cox said. Humidity levels were also expected to plummet to the teens by mid-afternoon Sunday.

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Westerly winds were forecast to pick up after 3 p.m. and peak between 6 and 9 p.m. at 10 to 20 mph, with gusts of up to 30 mph, said Miguel Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. The pattern of winds strengthening in the late afternoons and evenings will likely persist for the next several days, he said.

“It’s not anything outrageous or very strong but it’s enough to push the fire around a little bit,” he said.

But if the fire spreads another 10 to 15 miles to the east, where the San Gorgonio pass creates an intense natural wind tunnel, the situation could change, he said.

“If we can keep it out of that tunnel … then we’ll be doing firefighters and everybody a big favor,” he said.

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An evacuation center was opened at Beaumont High School for people and animals, and the American Red Cross arranged for hotel rooms for 32 people from about 10 households Saturday night, regional disaster officer Debbie Leahy said Sunday.

The evacuation center is staffed by volunteers who are trained in COVID-19 safety protocols and outfitted with face coverings, and social distancing is strictly observed, she said. All who enter must undergo a brief health screening, and nurses are also conducting daily telephone screenings of the evacuees who were placed in hotel rooms, she said.

“We’re in a COVID environment, and then if we have these wildfires at that, it complicates the situation,” she said. “But if we just all focus on safety we’re going to be OK.”

The U.S. Forest Service on Saturday ordered an emergency closure of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, including the Pacific Crest Trail between the forest boundary and Forest Road 1N01. Forest Service recreation areas in the Forest Falls area were also closed.

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Forest Service recreation staff and volunteers visited trailheads to let hikers and backpackers know that the wilderness area is closed, and on Saturday announcements were also made via helicopter, Cox said.

“They’re not in danger right at this moment but we preemptively want to make sure they have enough time to get out,” she said.

The vegetation fire was first reported at 4:55 p.m. Friday in the 9000 block of Oak Glen Road, according to the Riverside County Fire Department. There wasn’t word on its cause.

The fire was burning through thick fuels, which were fueled by seasonal rainfall that was close to average in the area, Miller said.

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“That made for a decent green-up, as they call it, in the springtime — leafing out the vegetation, the grasses get going,” he said. “Then by May, June, certainly by July … Those grasses simply dry up, they turn yellow, they turn flammable. And that’s why summertime is the high fire season.”