BY RINGO H.W. CHIU and AMANDA LEE MYERS
LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. (AP) — More than 1,000 firefighters battled Friday to keep a growing Southern California forest fire feeding on dry brush and trees from reaching foothill neighborhoods a day after flames roared to new ferocity and came within yards of homes.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Orange and Riverside counties as the fire carved its way along ridges in the Cleveland National Forest.
Some hillsides were allowed to burn under the watchful eyes of firefighters — to reduce fuel and make it harder for flames to jump roadways into communities if winds pick up again.
Aircraft dropped retardant as homeowners sprayed their houses with water from garden hoses while the blaze south of Los Angeles gained renewed strength Thursday evening, propelled by 20-mph (30-kph) gusts.
Hundreds more firefighters joined the effort, bringing the total to 1,200. The fire has chewed through 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) of dense chaparral and is only 5 percent contained.
It’s one of nearly 20 blazes across the state. Officials reported progress in the fight against two major Northern California wildfires — one called the Mendocino Complex Fire that is the largest in state history — burning more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Sacramento.
Cleveland National Forest officials tweeted that the Southern California fire is growing as fast as crews can build containment lines.
“We continue to actively engage, but cannot get ahead of the fire,” the statement said.
Teresita Reyes was among some 20,000 people under evacuation orders, saying she was attending a wedding Wednesday when she received the order to evacuate. The 51-year-old state health inspector congratulated the couple and left quietly to head back to her house in the city of Lake Elsinore and grab important documents.
Since then, Reyes and her husband have been staying at a hotel with a faulty air conditioner while their three dogs and cat are holed up at the family’s plumbing business.
“It is nerve-wracking and unreal,” she said. “We were on pins and needles for a little while there because it got real close.”
Brown’s proclamation late Thursday ordered state agencies to help local governments.
Fifty miles (80 kilometers) west of the fire, residents in the city of Long Beach awoke to ash on their cars and in their yards.
A resident of the small community of Holy Jim Canyon in the forest was scheduled for a court hearing Friday on charges that he deliberately set the fire.
Forrest Clark, 51, is charged with arson and other crimes and could face life in prison if convicted. It wasn’t immediately known if he had a lawyer.
Michael Milligan, chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, told the Orange County Register that Clark had a decade-long feud with neighbors and sent him threatening emails last week, including one that said, “this place will burn.”
The fire — named for the canyon where it started — destroyed a dozen cabins after it broke out Monday.
Firefighters are trying to keep flames away from Santiago Peak, where critical communication infrastructure for the region is located.
Crews turned a corner in their battle against a Northern California fire and achieved 51 percent containment of the Mendocino Complex — actually twin fires that are being fought together. The fire destroyed more than 100 homes and has blackened an area about the size of the city of Los Angeles.
And near the Northern California city of Redding, the year’s deadliest fire was nearly half surrounded and was burning into remote and rugged forest land.
Firefighters had almost contained a huge fire near Yosemite National Park.
The fires all grew explosively in the past two weeks as winds whipped the flames through forest and rural areas full of timber and brush that is bone-dry from years of drought and a summer of record-breaking heat.
Air quality has been another casualty of the fires. A smoky haze stretches from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to Sacramento and hovers over the San Francisco Bay Area, with most major population centers in between enduring air quality that’s considered dangerous for many residents.
The sheer size of the fires is numbing in a state that is still reeling from enormous blazes last year and has yet to hit its historically most dangerous months.
Myers reported from Los Angeles. AP journalists Michael Balsamo and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Amy Taxin in Orange County and Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this story.
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