CABAZON, Calif. – Susana Medrano stood in her front yard, mesmerized by the orange and red flames creeping along the wind-swept mountain ridge behind her home, and struggled to leave.
Her children sat in the back of her pickup after grabbing the new clothes and backpacks they had bought for the school year, which starts next week. Now they were wondering whether they will have a place to live.
"It's hard because we don't know what's going to happen," said the mother of four, her eyes tearing up as she prepared to stay with family down the road in San Bernardino. "I've never seen the fire so close to my home."
The rapidly spreading wildfire raging through a rugged Southern California mountain range Thursday had already destroyed 26 homes and was threatening more than 500 other residences, forcing some 1,800 people to flee. One man suffered serious burns and five firefighters were injured, including two from heat exhaustion.
More than 1,400 firefighters and nine helicopters battled the flames as they pushed eastward along the San Jacinto Mountains, a desert range 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
The wind-whipped blaze was getting bigger and heading toward the desert town of Cabazon, said Cal Fire Riverside Chief John R. Hawkins.
The fire was estimated at nearly 22 square miles Thursday with 20 percent containment, but the direction could change in the area, which is known as a wind tunnel. Evacuation orders were issued in five towns, including parts of Cabazon.
"The conditions at the front right now are very dangerous," Hawkins said.
Authorities still have not determined what caused the fire.
Medrano was among scores of residents in Cabazon who were evacuated in the pre-dawn hours Thursday and returned after sunrise to pack up more belongings and watch the flickering line of fire snaking along the brown, scrubby mountains.
In the nearby town of Banning, Lili Arroyo, 83, left with only her pet cockatiel, Tootsie, in its cage and a bag of important papers from her home, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in a 2006 wildfire.
"There were embers and ash coming down all over the sky," Arroyo said. "The smoke was really thick. I was starting not to be able to breathe."
Along with Cabazon, the evacuation orders covered two camping areas and the rural communities of Poppet Flats, Twin Pines, Edna Valley and Vista Grande.
Most of Southern California's severe wildfires are associated with Santa Ana winds caused by high pressure over the West that sends a clockwise flow of air rushing down into the region.
This week's fire, however, was being fanned by a counter-clockwise flow around a low pressure area over northwest California.
It was the second major wildfire in the San Jacinto Mountains this summer. A blaze that erupted in mid-July spread over 43 square miles on peaks above Palm Springs, burned seven homes and forced 6,000 people out of Idyllwild and neighboring towns.
The latest fire also burned in the footprint of the notorious Esperanza Fire, a 2006, wind-driven inferno that overran a U.S. Forest Service engine crew. All five crew members died. A man was convicted of setting the fire and sentenced to death.
After touring the area, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who lives in Riverside County, said 165,000 acres have burned in California this year and climate change is setting conditions for more disastrous blazes, while budget cuts are limiting resources to fight them.
"Unless we take action, things are only going to get worse," she said.
A different blaze, a 60-acre wildfire, forced evacuations of about 75 homes Thursday near Wrightwood, a community in the San Gabriel Mountains popular with skiers located about 40 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.