Firefighters make progress battling Southern California wildfire, but homes remain threatened

AGUANGA, Calif. (AP) — Firefighters on Wednesday made inroads in containing a Southern California wildfire, but officials said many homes and other buildings remain threatened by the blaze that at one point saw thousands of people under orders to evacuate

The Highland Fire in rural Riverside County southeast of Los Angeles was only mildly active as Santa Ana winds that pushed it through brushy hills eased and fire crews had it 20% contained by Wednesday night, said Rob Roseen, a fire spokesperson.

"It was favorable conditions for firefighters" but humidity remained low and rugged terrain made the work challenging for the approximately 1,200 firefighters, Roseen said.

The size of the blaze remained unchanged at just under 4 square miles (10 square kilometers).

One firefighter was injured but was in stable condition, Roseen said. He didn’t have details.

Gusty, dry Santa Ana winds were blowing Monday when the fire erupted near rural Aguanga in Riverside County about 53 miles (85 kilometers) north of San Diego. Evacuation orders were issued for 4,000 residents as flames spread rapidly.

With progress being made against the blaze, many evacuation orders were reduced to warnings on Wednesday, and several thousand people were allowed to return home but about 2,500 homes and other buildings remained threatened, authorities said.

Although the forecast for the next few days was favorable, those allowed back home should remain vigilant, Roseen said.

“There's always a chance to that winds could kick up,” he said.

Seven homes and other buildings had been destroyed and six others damaged, authorities said.

Retiree George Boyles told The Press-Enterprise that the fire seemed far away at first but suddenly was coming toward his home. He and his wife, Lucila, initially planned to drive out but instead had to ride out the firestorm in a cleared area of dirt on their property.

Their house and garage were destroyed, said Boyles, adding they had paid off the property in April.

Another resident, Luis Quinonez, was away when one of his two properties burned to the ground. No one was hurt, and his dogs, cats, chickens and roosters all survived, he told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The Santa Ana winds, which have a long history of stoking the region's wildfires, blow out of the interior toward the Pacific Coast. The dry air saps moisture from vegetation, making it easier to burn. Forecasters predicted a return of moist ocean air by Friday.