CORONA, Calif. – Southern California's first wildfires (search) of the season burned homes and brushlands and forced thousands of people to evacuate on Tuesday, portending what could be an especially dangerous and costly summer.
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A man was charged with negligently setting the largest blaze.
The fires burned through a total of more than 18,675 acres of grass and low-lying scrub parched by blistering spring heat that led the state to declare an earlier-than-usual start to the fire season on Monday. More than 30 structures were destroyed, including over a dozen homes.
"We've never been burned this bad before," said Dick Benjamin, 70, whose home in Riverside County (search) was saved. "Fires are supposed to be in August and September, not May."
Nearly a dozen firefighters among the thousands on the job in Southern California were treated for injuries, including heat stroke and dehydration. At least two people fleeing a fire in the Los Padres National Forest (search) were treated for injuries, including smoke inhalation and cuts and bruises.
Capt. Mark Miller, his face caked with dirt and soot from battling a 10,500-acre in Riverside County, said Tuesday night that low humidity, high temperatures and erratic canyon winds had created a dangerous foe for firefighters.
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"I'm a 25-year veteran and I'm seeing conditions like I've never seen before. It's like gasoline burning up there in these mountains," Miller said.
The two biggest fires burned in Riverside County, an inland region east of Los Angeles. Fires also burned in San Diego County and up the coast in Santa Barbara County.
"Burning conditions are probably about what we'd expect in late June or July," said Rich Green, assistant deputy director of the California Forestry Department (search). "It's shaping up to be a very difficult year statewide."
A drought that has left vegetation tinder dry and an infestation of tree-killing bark beetles have set the stage for what could be a severe fire season. Those conditions have been compounded by record-setting heat and thin budgets for fire departments.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein said 2004 could be one of the worst fire seasons ever, coming on the heels of a record series of wildfires that tore through Southern California last year, killing 22 people and burning 3,600 homes. Feinstein said recreational areas may have to be closed during the peak fire season.
"In areas that are catastrophic prone, they really ought to restrict human use or human travel, to the extent that it can be done," she said.
Feinstein said she was disturbed $120 million allocated for tree removal in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties had not yet been spent. "This is unacceptable," she said.
As many as 600 people were evacuated as a 9,000-acre fire in Riverside County between Corona and Lake Elsinore approached their homes. Firefighters were trying to save about 250 homes as winds picked up. "It just had a flare-up," said Lynn Rowe, a spokeswoman for the Corona Fire Department.
Homeowners John and Suzie Lynch refused to leave their home though flames came within 20 yards. "We are not budging," said 47-year-old John Lynch. "I'm sure this is just one of many fires to come."
An additional 2,000 to 3,000 people may have left voluntarily, Forestry Department engineer Rick Griggs said.
Abraham Contreras said firefighters warned on Monday that flames from the largest fire were coming toward his home. He said he got in his tractor and cleared debris around his 33-acre property, but the fire burned everything except his and his neighbor's home.
"The fire can't come back — everything's burned," he said.
A smaller, 5,000-acre fire in Riverside County, 10 miles south of an area that burned last fall, destroyed 25 structures, including 14 homes, officials said. Containment was estimated at 30 percent.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency made federal money available to firefighting agencies for the two Riverside County blazes.
Last month, a governor's review panel outlined a series of changes that could be made to better prevent and respond to wildfires such as the ones last fall.
Among the commission's recommendations were more training and improved equipment; quicker use of military aircraft; and reconsideration of the sunset deadline for launching firefighting aircraft.