A raging brush fire sparked by a trash truck near Interstate 10 in Calimesa killed a woman, destroyed 76 mobile homes and blackened 832 acres before crews got it marginally contained Friday.
The blaze was reported at 1:58 p.m. Thursday at Sandalwood Drive and Seventh Street, near the Interstate 10 exit ramp, according to the Riverside County Fire Department.
“This was a very rapidly moving fire,” county fire Division Chief Todd Hopkins said during a late morning news briefing in Beaumont. “It started when a trash truck caught fire, and the burning trash was jettisoned out the back of the vehicle. As of now, we are trying to contain the fire, but we are challenged with the weather and winds. We’re still concerned with the potential the fire may have.”
Flames from the burning trash ignited dry grass and spread into the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park. An 89-year-old woman identified as Lois Arvickson died in the fire, family members told reporters.
Her son said he was on the phone with his mother, who told him she was getting her purse and planned to leave in her car, when the line went dead.
Sheriff Chad Bianco said the Central Homicide Unit was handling the death investigation, and he noted that two people who resided in the mobile home park remain unaccounted for, though he stopped short of calling them missing. They weren’t identified.
“We’re trying to determine whether there’s criminal culpability,” Bianco said. “We’re investigating to see if we need any type of criminal charges, and we are still in the process of identifying everybody who should have been or lived in the mobile home park.”
Along with 76 mobile homes that were consumed by the flames, another nine sustained moderate damage, according to Hopkins.
Calimesa Fire Department Battalion Chief Jeff Rarey said a temporary shelter for displaced residents was established at Mesa Grande Academy, 975 Fremont St.
Along with the county and Calimesa fire departments, Cal Fire-San Bernardino County and the Yucaipa fire departments were working to encircle the blaze under a unified command. The brusher was 10 percent contained as of 8 a.m.
Mandatory evacuations were in effect south of Seventh Street and east of County Line Road, as well as for nearby Mesa View Middle School, whose students were taken by bus to Calimesa Elementary School in Yucaipa Thursday.
Bianco said more than 500 homes remain under evacuation, and Seventh Street was shut down between Sandalwood Drive and County Line Road.
“That road closure will be in place for quite some time because of the investigation,” the sheriff said, adding that deputies were providing security around evacuated properties to prevent looting.
The sheriff advised anyone who has information about the fire, or who is from the area and may have other concerns, to call 951-776-1099 and use option No. 5.
“This is a very, very difficult day for Riverside County and Calimesa,” said county Supervisor Jeff Hewitt, who previously served as the city’s mayor. “This fire has caused extensive damage to the community, and we have lost life. My heart goes out to the community, and our thoughts are especially with the grieving relatives.”
Hewitt said the county Emergency Management Department has declared a state of emergency, which the Board of Supervisors will need to ratify at its next regular meeting on Oct. 22. The declaration will enable the county to apply for immediate state and federal aid.
Large and small animals were being accepted at the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus at 581 S. Grand Ave. in San Jacinto. Anyone needing help evacuating pets was urged to call 951-358-7387.
A half dozen Cal Fire air tankers and several water-dropping helicopters were summoned Thursday afternoon to make runs on the fire, which expanded into San Bernardino County by 3 p.m. The air support was back in action Friday morning.