Not a wisp of smoke was visible from the 280 blackened acres in the hills south of Banning, but fire officials know the forecast and aren’t about to declare victory.
“We still have the whole afternoon of dry, hot temperatures and wind,” cautioned Cal Fire Division Chief Kevin Gaines.
The brush fire started Saturday evening, Sept. 29, and was reported 20 percent contained at 1:25 p.m. Sunday. If all goes well, Gaines said, his 250 firefighters should have what has been dubbed the Range Fire fully contained by 8 a.m. Monday, Oct. 1. But by then, forecasters predict, temperatures will begin climbing toward an afternoon high of 108 degrees — up from Sunday’s 102.
It just takes one gust to blow one ember beyond the fire lines, igniting a spot fire and potentially creating a whole new battle.
And the whole region is susceptible to those gusty winds that fanned the Range Fire across rugged brown hills that are so steep that bulldozers aren’t of much help.
So the bulk of this weekend’s fire fell to hand crews.
The National Weather Service issued a special statement saying that the fire danger will increase Monday and Tuesday.
The temperature forecast for Inland valleys is 100 to 108 degrees. The highs for mountains below 6,000 feet should be 85 to 103, and highs for mountains above 6,000 feet should be 70 to 90 degrees. Tuesday is expected to be slightly cooler than Monday, but still very hot.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Jody Hagemann said that during this higher fire threat, people should not participate in activities in brushy areas that could create a spark, including shooting, motorcycle riding or weed trimming.
Additionally, the National Weather Service encouraged people to take health precautions.
“Persons planning to be outside in the heat during the late morning and afternoon hours should stay hydrated and know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke,” the National Weather Service wrote. “Drink plenty of non-alcoholic and non-decaffeinated fluids and avoid strenuous outdoor activity if possible.”
As for the cause of the Range Fire, shooters are believed to have triggered the blaze about 6:10 p.m. Saturday in a remote area east of Old Idyllwild Road and south of Shirleon Drive. It’s an area well above a rural community of scattered homes, occasional tree lines and clusters of grazing horses.
It’s the shooters — or more correctly, an old shooting range in the area — that gave this weekend’s fire its name.
“This is the third fire this year at the range,” said Gaines.
Investigators identified shooters as the likely cause of the fire through the process of elimination, he said. They ruled out lightning, motorcycle riders, and hikers, he said, and the flames didn’t ignite near a road, he noted. On top of that, he said, shooters were seen in the area.
Overnight, a 20-by-20-foot shed and several abandoned vehicles burned, fire officials say.
A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter was summoned to hoist aboard a firefighter who’d suffered a twisted knee. Early Sunday, another firefighter hurt an ankle.
For a brief period Sunday, fire officials were concerned that homes might be endangered. But crews kept the flames from creeping closer than a quarter-mile to them.
By early Sunday afternoon, Gaines was cautiously optimistic of the outcome, barring any weather problems.
“I feel confident we’re going to be able to hold the fire,” he said.
BY RICHARD BROOKS
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