Blaze Near Murrieta Scorches Almost 2,000 Acres, Hundreds Evacuated

MURRIETA (CNS) - A wildfire possibly ignited by lightning just west of Murrieta has burned 2,000 acres, prompted hundreds of homes to be evacuated and schools in four districts to be closed, threatened at least 1,200 homes, damaged two properties and was 20% contained this morning.

The “Tenaja” blaze was reported about 3:55 p.m. Wednesday in the area of Clinton Keith and Tenaja roads in the unincorporated community of La Cresta, according to the Riverside County Fire Department.

“There's difficult terrain to access the fire,” Cal Fire Division Chief Todd Hopkins said during a Thursday news briefing in Murrieta.

“In this area, there's also something called the `Elsinore Effect,' where the winds come in one direction in the morning and then turn 180 degrees in the afternoon, causing the fire to run downhill, back into neighborhoods. We expect the same weather pattern Friday.”

Nearly 900 firefighters from Riverside County, Cal Fire, Murrieta Fire & Rescue, the Hemet Fire Department, Corona Fire Department, the Orange County Fire Authority and U.S. Forest Service were battling the fire. One firefighter suffered a non-life threatening injury, according to Cal Fire.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, officials projected full containment of the fire by Tuesday.

Two homes sustained minor damage, according to Hopkins. Another 1,200 homes were threatened by the fire, Cal Fire said. They are in the Bear Creak, Copper Canyon north and south and Trails Circle neighborhoods of Murrieta.

“Crews have been doing an excellent job getting into difficult areas and stopping the flames before they damage structures,” Hopkins said.

Murrieta Police Department Chief Sean Hadden said 570 properties had been evacuated, though some of those residents had decided to return since Wednesday night.

“I understand residents want to get back into their homes, but it's a dangerous situation,” Hadden said.

All residents on Belcara Place, Botanica Place, Lone Oak Way, Montanya Place, The Trails Circle and Copper Canyon North and South, between Clinton Keith Road and Murrieta Creek Drive, were placed under mandatory evacuation orders, while areas of Bear Creek were under a voluntary evacuation warning. The Santa Rosa Plateau Visitor Center was closed Wednesday.

And on Friday morning, all evacuation orders were lifted, but the affected communities remained under a voluntary evacuation warning.

A care and reception center was available for displaced residents at Murrieta Mesa High School. Small animals were being accepted at that location, while larger animals, including horses, were being accepted at the county's San Jacinto Animal Campus on Grand Avenue.

Parking for horse trailers was available at Los Alamos Hills Sports Park on Ruth Ellen Way in Murrieta, and people with recreation vehicles or motorhomes were invited to utilize free space and hookups at the Lake Skinner Recreation Area on Warren Road.

Clinton Keith Road was closed from Chantory Street to Avenida La Cresta, and Tenaja Road was shut down between Via Volcano and Clinton Keith Road for public safety and to give crews freedom to maneuver. The closure at Los Gatos Road and Via Volcano was lifted around 7 p.m.

Eighty-seven engine crews and a dozen hand crews were fighting the fire, aided by six Cal Fire air tankers and several water-dropping helicopters, most of which were returning to their bases as darkness approached.

All schools in the Murrieta Valley and Lake Elsinore Unified school districts, Menifee Union and Romoland school districts will be closed today. Murrieta Valley and Lake Elsinore district officials cited the impact the fire was having on students and staff as the reason for the closure. Menifee Unified and Romoland officials said poor air quality was the reason schools would be closed.

A thunderstorm cell moved through the area just prior to the fire, and it's suspected that a lightning strike ignited it.

Power lines were reported down at the location.

Southern California Edison was coordinating with the fire department to determine whether transmission lines throughout La Cresta should be shut down as a safety precaution, a process known as “de-energization.”

The county Department of Public Health issued an air quality advisory, warning residents north and east of the Tenaja blaze that fire debris could have negative health impacts.

“Ash and smoke can be hard on anyone to breathe, but especially those with lung disease,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, the county's public health officer. “Everyone worries about the flames, but smoke can impact you even if you're miles away from the fire.”

Kaiser recommended young children and those in sensitive health to stay indoors and run air conditioners -- with unobstructed filters -- to minimize the effects of smoke and ash.

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