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Firefighters race to make gains on Southern California wildfire before strong winds return

  • Southern California Wildfires.JPEG

    Smoke from a wildfire can bee seen in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Wednesday April 30, 2014. Schools and homes were evacuated Wednesday, as dry, gusty winds fanned a smoky wildfire in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains in California. At least three schools were shut down due to the smoky conditions in parts of Rancho Cucamonga, a city of 165,000 people east of Los Angeles. (AP photo/John Antczak) (The Associated Press)

  • 3be78d73ea4adc10520f6a7067007dc1.jpg

    A resident rushes to help evacuate a home as a brush fire burning in Day Creek near the Etiwanda Preserve in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., nears their neighborhood on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Fire officials say winds gusting to 60 mph are pushing the flames through the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, although no homes are in immediate danger. Several neighborhoods and at least seven schools in Rancho Cucamonga have been evacuated. There’s no word on what sparked the blaze but it comes in the midst of a heat wave that’s created extreme fire danger. (AP Photo/The Press-Enterprise, Stan Lim) MAGS OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT (The Associated Press)

Firefighters battling a smoky blaze in the foothills east of Los Angeles hoped to take advantage of a brief respite from the fierce, hot winds that initially pushed the fire into the path of more than 1,500 homes.

As the winds that had gusted to 80 mph on Wednesday eased up during the evening, mandatory evacuation orders for 1,650 once-endangered homes were canceled. The winds were forecast to return before dawn on Thursday, however, which prompted officials to order four high schools near the blaze to remain closed.

The fire erupted around 8 a.m. Wednesday in the foothills of the San Bernardino National Forest and quickly burned across 1,000 acres of brush. Although the U.S. Forest Service continued to cite that figure late Wednesday night, indicating the fire hadn't grown for several hours, no containment estimate was given either.

Meanwhile, more than 700 firefighters remained on the front lines, fighting the blaze with 55 fire engines and four bulldozers. High winds prevented them from using aircraft.

At their peak, the Santa Ana winds had gusted to 80 mph, with one gust recorded as high as 101 mph.

More of the same conditions were predicted for Thursday, accompanied by temperatures that forecasters said could top 100 degrees.

The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning of extremely dangerous fire conditions for Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties until 8 p.m. Thursday.

As the flames raced through heavy brush on Wednesday, some of which last burned a decade ago, homes not even in the blaze's path were threatened.

A blaze fanned by gusts "tends to throw embers and brands ahead of itself, sometimes a mile," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Chon Bribiescas. "That's the insidious part of a wind-driven fire."

That's why officials decided to keep Los Osos, Rancho Cucamonga, Alta Loma and Etiwanda high schools closed on Thursday.

At the fire's height Wednesday, seven schools were closed and parents scrambled to take their children away.

Francisco Aguilar, a Los Angeles city firefighter who lives in Rancho Cucamonga, picked up his 11-year-old daughter, Bella.

"It's like a madhouse in there," he told the San Bernardino Sun (http://bit.ly/1fzZX8Y ). "Parents are running around trying to grab their kids, and kids are covering their faces with tissue or their T-shirts."

Leo Lemelin, 67, and his family busily loaded several cars with belongings as they prepared to leave the area.

"We're trying to pack up everything we can into our cars from 45 years of marriage and eight grandchildren," he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise (http://bit.ly/1ftmqok).

Although the fire remained out of control, it had run out of fuel in some areas, while firefighters and bulldozers cut away brush in others, Bribiescas said.

The only structure reported burned was a fence.

The winds also fanned a handful of small brush fires around Southern California that were quickly doused without damage.

At one point, utilities reported about 8,000 people had lost power Wednesday because of wind-related problems such as downed power lines.

The fire erupted in the midst of a heat wave that has sent Southern California temperatures soaring into the 90s in some areas, with triple-digit highs predicted for Thursday.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles International Airport recorded a high of 87 degrees, breaking the record for the day of 86 that was set in 1996. At Long Beach Airport, the high of 92 broke a 1996 record by 2 degrees.

High temperatures were expected to continue through Saturday, with humidity in the single digits.

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