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Firefighters making some progress in battling California wildfire

Posted at 11:05 AM, May 02, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-02 11:05:18-04

By Ed Payne and Paul Vercammen

BANNING, California (CNN) — Firefighters are making progress battling what has been a fast-growing Southern California wildfire that’s already consumed more than 2,950 acres, a fire official said.

The spread of the blaze seemed to slow early Thursday morning and crews gained greater containment, now pegged at 40% with no growth in acreage, according to the state agency Cal Fire.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson said winds are the wild card in vanquishing the blaze, since they were picking up as the sun rose. But firefighters were feeling pretty good about their progress and were cautiously optimistic after a good night on the fire line, she said.

The Riverside County Fire Department said 425 firefighters were involved in what’s being called the Summit Fire. Six air tankers dropped chemical retardants on the flames.

There were no exact numbers on how many people had been evacuated in the region, but authorities said a 200-unit mobile home park in Cherry Valley had been cleared.

They also said some residents in Banning were told to leave their homes. Banning is about 25 miles west of Palm Springs.

An evacuation center has been opened at the Banning Community Services Center, officials said. An evacuation center for small animals is located at San Jacinto Valley Animal Services, Cal Fire said.

Family home up in flames

The fire claimed at least one house.

Joe Kiener said his mom bought the home in 1973 and lived there until her death last month.

“I didn’t think I was going to lose the house at all,” he said Wednesday. “I just knew that the fire was coming across at a rapid speed from east to west, and I was safe at the time.”

But then the wind shifted.

“I grabbed the dog … and put him into the car,” making a quick getaway with a police escort, he said.

Perfect conditions for wildfires

The early start to the Western wildfire season has authorities concerned. Only a couple of inches of rain have fallen in Southern California since the start of the year, making the region as dry as it normally would be in the fall, when fire season is typically at its peak.

“It could be a very long, hot summer with a lot of potential for fires if they get started and if we continue to have the hot dry weather,” said Hutchinson. “It’s only going to get hotter and drier as we go through the summer.”

The National Weather Service said a red flag warning was in effect until Friday evening. Forecasters called for wind speeds between 15 and 25 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph.

Forecasters say the combination of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures will create “extreme fire behavior.”

Better get used to it, says Hutchinson.

“Fire season is here. Everyone needs to be alert for that. They need to be prepared for that.”

CNN’s Cheri Mossburg, Erica Henry and Irving Last contributed to this report.