Firefighters were beginning to make progress against the 15,000-acre Apple Fire Sunday, achieving 12% containment in Cherry Valley, where the blaze charred at least one home and was threatening dozens more.
Still, officials said much of the northern and eastern edge of the fire is in very steep, rugged hillsides that is not accessible to firefighting vehicles. Helicopters, fixed wing air tankers, ground equipment and hand crews were all recruited to battle the wildfire.
Several evacuations were in place in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
An emergency closure order was put in place Sunday prohibiting all entry into the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area, including the Pacific Crest Hiking Trail between the Forest Boundary and Forest Road 1N01.
Residents north of Wilson Street, east of Sunset Avenue and west of Hathaway Street in Banning, were ordered to evacuate at 2:15 p.m. Saturday as flames crept toward the neighborhood, according to the Riverside County Emergency Management Department.
At 7 p.m., residents were put on notice they should be prepared to evacuate with little notice from the area north of Morongo Road east of Millard Canyon Road, west of Whitewater Canyon Road.
Also under evacuation orders since Friday were residents in the Banning Bench area and those north of Cherry Valley Boulevard between Beaumont and Highland Springs avenues, the Riverside County Fire Department said.
Fire officials estimated that 400 residences and 2,000 people have been evacuated and said they do not have a time frame for repopulating evacuated areas.
A hard road closure was in place along North Sunset at Wilson and North San Gorgonio Avenue at Summit Drive, according to the Banning Police Department.
Oak Glen Road between Cherry Valley Boulevard and Wildwood Canyon Road was also shut down.
A temporary evacuation center was established at Beaumont High School, 39139 Cherry Valley Blvd., with anyone going there subject to COVID-19 testing before being allowed in, fire department spokesman Fernando Herrera said.
The American Red Cross was assisting evacuees by putting them up in hotels.
Riverside County residents were encouraged to visit the website www.rivcoready.org/ActiveEvents for an interactive map, where they can enter their address and see if they are in an evacuation area. They can also follow https://twitter.com/RivCoReady for updates.
The fight was being waged by a unified command among the U.S. Forest Service, Riverside County Fire Department, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the city of Yucaipa.
Fire activity was expected to remain high Sunday and the weather was expected to be similar to the past few days, with a high pressure ridge creating hot, dry conditions.
Fire officials said a single-family home and two outbuildings were destroyed near Avenida Miravilla, adding to the destruction of a few cars, a structure and a boat reported Friday night.
The smoke column from the fire was visible throughout much of Southern California. The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory through Saturday evening for the Coachella Valley, San Gorgonio Pass and Hemet-San Jacinto Valley due to the fire. The agency urged residents in the area who smell smoke or see ash to limit their exposure by remaining indoors with windows and doors closed or to seek alternate shelter, and avoid vigorous physical activity.
As of 8 a.m. Sunday, 20 hand crews, six helicopters, 178 engines and 19 water tenders and 1,200 personnel were involved in the firefighting effort.
Along with county fire crews and Orange County and Anaheim Fire and Rescue firefighters, personnel from the Calimesa, Morongo, Murrieta, Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Huntington Beach, Hemet, Pechanga, San Bernardino, Soboba, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County fire departments were sent to assist under a mutual aid request.
At the request of the fire department, Southern California Edison turned off electricity along Oak Glen Road and 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.”
Initially, 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., the RCFD said.
A third possible arson fire was also reported in the area and had blackened 60 to 80 acres by 7 p.m., according to reports from the scene. Firefighters sent to the location encountered the three blazes coalescing in a drainage with heavy vegetation.
Witnesses 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 and an investigation into the cause was underway.