California fires 'like petrol burning'

As acrid smoke from more than 18,000 acres of charred brush curled skyward today, California officials feared the earlier-than-usual start of the summer wildfires season could make it the most dangerous ever.

As acrid smoke from more than 18,000 acres of charred brush curled skyward today, California officials feared the earlier-than-usual start of the summer wildfires season could make it the most dangerous ever.

Fire crews battled three major wildfires that topped 1,000 acres each and more than 1,000 people were ordered to evacuate at the two biggest blazes, both in Riverside County, an inland region east of Los Angeles.

Flames had destroyed more than 30 structures by early today, including more than a dozen homes.

Fires also burned in San Diego County and up the coast in Santa Barbara County.

Officials said the season’s first wildfires burned with an intensity usually not seen until late summer, portending an especially dangerous and costly summer.

“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. “It’s shaping up to be a very difficult year statewide.”

By early today, fires burned a total of more than 18,675 acres of tinder-dry grass and low-lying scrub. The fire season started Monday, three weeks earlier than last year due to dry weather and a tree-killing bark beetle infestation.

Fire officials hoped cooler weather and diminished winds in the next few days would help crews gain ground on the blazes. Forecasters said temperatures would be in the 80s today and Thursday.

“I’m a 25-year veteran and I’m seeing conditions like I’ve never seen before. It’s like petrol burning up there in these mountains,” said Fire Captain Mark Miller.

A man has been charged with negligently setting the blaze. Witnesses said Richard Drew Brown dragged a large piece of steel behind his vehicle, creating sparks that started several fires in the canyon.

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