Apple fire grows to 4,125 acres, prompts more evacuations in Cherry Valley

by 24USATVAug. 1, 2020, 11:40 p.m. 14
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An afternoon flare-up of the Apple fire in Cherry Valley on Saturday, Aug. 1, spread to 4,125 acres and prompted new evacuations as firefighters attacked the sweeping blaze on a blistering hot day.

The flare-up was moving northwest from Pine Bench Road, said Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department Capt. Fernando Herrera.

RELATED: This map shows the location, evacuations for the Apple Fire in Cherry Valley

Homes were in the path of the flames but were not in imminent danger, he said.

The fire was burning intensely in drainages and canyons in the higher elevations and was being spread by ridgetop winds.More retardant-dropping airplanes and water-dropping helicopters were ordered as a result.

Just after 2 p.m., evacuations were ordered in two areas:

– East of Oak Glen Road, west of Banning Canyon Road and along Pine Bench Road.

– North of Wilson Street, east of Sunset Avenue and west of Hathaway Street.

All other evacuations remained in place.

Herrera urged residents not to wait until the flames were near to evacuate.

The Banning Bench, which previously had been threatened, “looks pretty good right now. Last night was touch-and-go,” Herrera saidabout at 2 p.m.

So far only one home has been confirmed destroyed. Firefighters were having difficulty assessing the damage from the flames becausethe charred ground was too hot to walk on, Herrera said. The air temperature, higher than 100 degrees, prompted fire crewsto frequently hydrate and take breaks.

“It’s hard to take a break, especially if you are making progress. But a (firefighter) needs to be able to say, ‘Hey, I need a break, “Herrera said.

Cherry Valley is a community of rising elevations with twisting, narrow roads north of Banning near the San Bernardino County border.

Firefighters on Saturday morning were focusing their efforts on reinforcing fire breaks in the Banning Bench area. The head of the fire was in the canyon below the Banning Bench, where homes were in danger.

But the fire mostly was just smoking, Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department Capt. Fernando Herrera said at the time.

“We don’t have any raging flames that you would expect right now,” he said about 8:30 a.m.

That could change as the humidity decreases during the day, Herrera said. The winds were expected to be breezy but lacking strong gusts that could rapidly spread any flames, he added.

Aircraft dropping flame retardant and water were overhead as Herrera spoke.

The expected 100-degree temperatures will not affect how the fire is fought, except that firefighters will be taking more breaks and will be mindful of being hydrated, Herrera said.

He estimated 400 residences and 2,000 people had been evacuated.

Some of them went to the American Red Cross evacuation center at Beaumont High, where the plume of black, brown and white smoke loomed in the background.

The threat of COVID-19 also loomed. Instead of setting up cots, volunteers provided hotel stays for evacuees with nowhere else to go, said John Medina, a Red Cross worker and former Corona fire chief.

Thirty-one evacuees stopped by Friday, and seven were put up in hotels. Nine had come by as of 1 p.m. Saturday and two were given hotel stays, Medina said.

The school gym was also being used as a cooling center.

Rick and Rose Stewart elected to stay at their home on Avenida Miravilla, a hilltop property with a panoramic view to the southwest that includes Lake Perris.

They built the home in 1997, Rick said, one year after he proposed to Rose on the vacant land.

So when the fire started, Rick, Rose and their son Jon decided to fight the flames themselves with a garden hose. Rose, 65, drove away from the flames. Rick and Jon stood their ground.

“That was one of the stupidest things I could suggest doing,” Rick said. That’s because the flames that crackled in three places suddenly exploded into one inferno and raced 300 feet past their home in about 10 seconds.

The flames burned a portion of their boat but spared the house.

“That was like staring into the eyes of hell, and that is the reason I’ll never do it again,” said Rick, 67.

Two possible arson fires were reported at 5 p.m Friday in the area of Apple Tree Lane and Oak Glen Road, on the north end of the unincorporated community bordering Beaumont and merged into one by 5:45 p.m., Cal Fire said Friday.

Thirty engine crews and 10 hand crews, numbering well over 200 personnel, were sent to the location and encountered the three blazes coalescing in a drainage area with heavy vegetation.

The Orange County Fire Authority sent a strike team consisting of five engines and a strike team leader and a crew of wildland firefighters to assist Riverside County firefighters. Anaheim Fire and Rescue crews also assisted firefighters in Cherry Valley.

A third possible arson fire was also reported in the area and had burned 60 to 80 acres as of 7 p.m., according to reports from the scene.

Sheriff’s deputies shut down Oak Glen Road between Cherry Valley Boulevard and Wildwood Canyon Road, and shortly before 6 p.m., multiple streets came under mandatory evacuation orders, impacting an estimated 1,000 residents in 150 homes, officials said.

Evacuations were ordered for residents in the Banning Bench area and a road closure was in place along North Sunset Avenue at Wilson Street and North San Gorgonio Avenue at Summit Drive, according to the Banning Police Department.

Evacuation orders were extended at 11 p.m. to north of Cherry Valley Boulevard, between Beaumont and Highland Springs avenues, Cal Fire said.

A temporary evacuation center was established at Beaumont High School, 39139 Cherry Valley Blvd., and anyone who goes there is subject to COVID-19 testing before being allowed inside, Herrera said.

At the request of the Fire Department, Southern California Edison turned off electricity along Oak Glen Road and on surrounding side streets to prevent additional fires from breaking out as burned power poles collapsed and dropped transmission lines.

The practice is known as a “public safety power shutoff.”

On Friday, witnesses reportedly called 911 as the fires started, stating a man was seen walking along Apple Tree Lane, igniting each blaze. Arson investigators were dispatched to the area. Herrera said he was unable to confirm that information Saturday. The investigation was ongoing, he said.

Along with Orange County fire crews, firefighters from the Calimesa, Morongo, Murrieta, Palm Springs, Pechanga, San Bernardino and Soboba fire departments assisted.

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