Flames from Apple Fire
Flames from the Apple Fire. Courtesy OnScene.TV

The federal government will provide funds to help fight the Apple Fire, which has expanded to 26,450 acres and remains 5% contained after burning from Cherry Valley into the San Bernardino National Forest and destroyed at least one home while threatening dozens, authorities said Monday.

Meanwhile, officials said the giant blaze was apparently caused by a vehicle malfunction and not possibly arson, as had been originally suspected.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state will receive a Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help ensure resources will be available to fight the brush fire. The grant will also allow local, state and tribal agencies responding to the fire to apply for 75% reimbursement of their eligible costs, the governor said.

A total of 2,296 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to the fire, including 29 hand crews and firefighters on 260 engines. The fight in the air during daylight hours involved nine helicopters and two airplanes, said fire officials, who updated the size of the fire after daybreak Monday morning.

“The Apple fire burned actively overnight, primarily to the north and east,” according to a statement posted shortly before 7 a.m. Monday on the InciWeb Incident Information system website.

“Much of the fire activity is being driven by the record low moisture content of the vegetation in the area combined with high temperatures and low relative humidity. These conditions are contributing to active fire behavior both day and night,” the InciWeb statement said.

The fire burned primarily to the north and east Sunday amid dry vegetation, low humidity and high temperatures in an area with no recent fire history, officials said. It was expected to burn into less dense vegetation as it progresses.

It was expected to be hot and dry again Monday with wind gusts of 20 to 30 mph between noon and 8 p.m., but humidity was forecast to increase at night.

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. Saturday, 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 2,600 residences and 7,800 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 Avenue at Wilson Street and North San Gorgonio Avenue at Summit Drive, according to the Banning Police Department.

Northbound Oak Glen Road from Orchard Avenue and northbound Bellflower Avenue at Cherry Valley Boulevard were 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 against the blaze has been 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. On Sunday morning, management of the incident transitioned to California Interagency Incident Management Team (IMT) 2. A public information line was established at 909-383-5688.

Officials said much of the northern and eastern edge of the fire is in very steep, rugged hillsides that are not accessible to firefighting vehicles. Helicopters, fixed wing air tankers, ground equipment and hand crews were battling the blaze.

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 Monday night 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.

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 was underway.

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