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Desert Communities Told to Evacuate as Winds Stoke Flames

September 20, 2020

JUNIPER HILLS, Calif. — Strong winds stoked a wildfire burning for nearly two weeks in mountains northeast of Los Angeles, prompting authorities to issue new evacuation orders for desert communities that lost some homes a day earlier. 

Meanwhile, officials were investigating the death of a firefighter on the lines of another Southern California wildfire that erupted earlier this month from a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used by a couple to reveal their baby's gender. 

The death occurred Thursday in San Bernardino National Forest as crews battled the El Dorado Fire about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement.

In northern Los Angeles County, firefighters focused on protecting homes Saturday as increasingly erratic winds pushed the Bobcat Fire toward foothill communities in the Antelope Valley after churning all the way across the San Gabriel Mountains. An evacuation order was issued Saturday for all residents in that zone as the fire burned toward Wrightwood, a mountain community of 4,000, said fire spokesman Andrew Mitchell.

The fire grew to 142 square miles (368 square kilometers) on Saturday when winds pushed the flames into Juniper Hills.

Some residents fled as blowing embers sparked spot fires, hitting some homes but sparing others. Bridget Lensing feared her family's house was lost on Friday after seeing on Twitter that a neighbor's house three doors down went up in flames. 

The house stood when she made her way back Saturday afternoon but her neighbors' houses in the remote community were burned to the ground.

"Everything around us is gone," she said.

The extent of the destruction in the area about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of downtown LA wasn't immediately clear. But, Los Angeles County park officials said the blaze destroyed the nature center at Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area, a geological wonder that attracts some 130,000 visitors per year.

No injuries were reported.

On the south side of the Bobcat Fire, firefighters continued to protect Mount Wilson, which overlooks greater Los Angeles and has a historic observatory founded more than a century ago and numerous broadcast antennas serving Southern California.

The fire that started Sept. 6 had already doubled in size over the last week. It is 15% contained.

Officials said the fire has been challenging because it is burning in areas that have not burned in decades, and because the firestorms across California have limited resources. There were about 1,660 firefighters on the lines.

The name of the firefighter killed in the nearby El Dorado Fire was being withheld until family members are notified. The body was escorted down the mountain in a procession of first-responder vehicles. No other information was released about the circumstances of the death.

A statement from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said it was the 26th death involving wildfires besieging the state.

A new blaze sparked by a vehicle that caught fire was growing in wilderness outside Palm Springs.

To the north, a fire burning for nearly a month in Sequoia National Forest roared to life again Friday and prompted evacuation orders for the central California mountain communities of Silver City and Mineral King. 

More than 7,900 wildfires have burned more than 5,468 square miles (14,164 square kilometers) in California this year, including many since a mid-August barrage of dry lightning ignited parched vegetation.

The El Dorado Fire has burned more than 34 square miles (89 square kilometers) and was 59% contained, with 10 buildings destroyed and six damaged.

Cal Fire said earlier this month that the El Dorado Fire was ignited Sept. 5 when a couple, their young children and someone there to record video staged the baby gender reveal at El Dorado Ranch Park at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains. 

The device was set off in a field and quickly ignited dry grass. The couple frantically tried to use bottled water to extinguish the flames and called 911. 

Authorities have not released the identities of the couple, who could face criminal charges and be held liable for the cost of fighting the fire.

Throughout the Northwest, firefighters welcomed cooler weather and rain, as well as much-improved air quality and visibility that would allow some to survey fire activity with drones.

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