A police pursuit that ended in a crash ignited a fire that has quickly spread to 300 acres, damaged homes and forced evacuations in Jurupa Valley, officials said Thursday.
Riverside County officials declared a local state of emergency due to the blaze, named the 46 fire, and others burning throughout the county. The 46 fire was reported at about 12:39 a.m., minutes after the car crash, and was pushed by gusts reaching 25 mph, according to law enforcement and weather officials. An hour later, the Hillside fire, also in Jurupa Valley, exploded to 200 acres near Highway 18.
Video footage shows flames feet away from goats and horses, as well as an animal shelter for dogs and cats. A group of ducks paddled in the Santa Ana River, with orange flames glowing in the darkness around the river.
The fire seemed to get out of control, driven by the steady winds, which wouldn’t die down until sunset, said Casey Oswant, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The temperature was moderate, in the mid to high 70s, but the air was extremely dry.
The situation prompted fire officials to expand their mandatory evacuation order at 7 a.m. to include homes south of Jurupa Road. An evacuation center has been set up at Patriot High School at 4355 Camino Real in Jurupa Valley.
Hours later, when fire officials got a better handle on the blaze, they reduced the evacuation order to residents south of Limonite Avenue, west of Crestmore, east of Van Buren and north of the Santa Ana River, according to officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection.
Smoke belched from Rancho Jurupa Regional Park as the sun rose over Riverside, unspooling in dark gray coils above the empty homes and eucalyptus groves that surround the park.
Before dawn, flames pushed right up to the fence of an animal shelter filled with more than 100 dogs and cats. Residents flocked to the Mary S. Roberts Adoption Center to evacuate the animals to the Riverside Municipal Airport after hearing of the situation on Facebook, said Lisa Chavez, the center’s admissions counselor.
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Joyce Russell’s insomnia kept her up at 2:30 a.m. when she smelled smoke drifting into her Riverside home. She reckoned it was her neighbor, a smoker — but her windows were shut and the smell was different.
“That’s not cigarette smoke,” she thought. She flicked on the radio and heard that a fire was burning. A neighbor from across the street banged on Russell’s door.
“You’ve got a fire in your backyard!” he told her.
Russell peered out her back door, past her back yard which overlooks the golf course bear Rancho Jurupa Park.
Although Russell has trouble seeing on account her cataracts, it was unmistakable, she said: “A ring of fire. Deep in the park, almost by the riverbed, a red and orange glow, bright red, bright orange.”
She set about gathering up her pets: Sabrina, a chihuahua, and Tibs, a cat. She was having trouble corralling Tibs when a police officer knocked on her door and told her she had to go. Leave the cat, he told her. She’ll be OK.
Russell got in her car with her chihuahua and crept out of her driveway, worried that because of her poor eyesight, she might hit a firefighter or police officer in the dark.
She made it as far as the end of her street, driving very slowly, when a young man approached and asked if she needed help. She asked if he could take her to an evacuation center.
He took the wheel of Russell’s car and drove her to Patriot High School, where a gymnasium had been converted into a shelter for residents displaced by the fires.
“Bless him,” she said. “Everyone’s upset with their own situation, and there he was helping someone he didn’t know.”
When Russell listened on the radio earlier this week about fires all over the state, in Los Angeles and Northern California, she would say a prayer for the people living through them. Now she finds herself in the same position.
“This is how you learn other people’s pain,” she said.
The flames later retreated, however, and the volunteers that had rushed to the animal shelter were told to shelter in place instead of evacuating. Rows of wire carriers stood ready in case the blaze made another advance. Volunteers cradled kittens and puppies, whispering to keep them calm.
Video footage of the hours after the chaos showed kittens and dogs sleeping soundly and playing in their cages.
“It was havoc in the beginning,” Chavez said, “but we all came together as a family to take care of what we needed to do.”
Deputy Robyn Flores, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, said deputies had been assisting the Riverside Police Department in the overnight car chase that ended in a field in the 4800 block of Crestmore Road. The crash set the field on fire.
Flores did not have information about the driver being pursued. The Riverside Police Department could not be immediately reached.
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