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Residents watch Riverside County fire burn close to their homes

February 28, 2013 | 10:13 pm

Firefighters beat back flames in Riverside County brush fire

As a brush fire fueled by thick vegetation singed the backyards of homes in Riverside on Thursday night, some residents ignored voluntary evacuation orders and stood their ground as fire crews battled the blaze.

The fire had burned 150 to 175 acres and was about 20% contained. Firefighters hoped to take advantage of calm winds and cooler temperatures. 

Power lines were down, but it was unclear whether they had sparked the blaze. About 1,800 residents were without power, fire officials said Thursday night.

On a cul-de-sac along the river bottom, resident Jack Dalman, 84, and his wife watched flames blaze through the brush and singe the palm trees in their backyard. Their 29-year-old grandson John Dalman pulled a garden hose down to the riverbed and stood side by side with firefighters as they sprayed water onto the oncoming flames.

Jack Dalman was in a neighborhood under an evacuation order, but the retired Riverside County Sheriff’s deputy wasn’t leaving.

“We’ve been through this before,” said Dalman, who patrolled his back yard in short pants and sandals. “I don’t worry.”

Jim Ingraham, 77, saw a bank of palm trees explode into a bright orange ball of flames. But he said he wasn’t alarmed as he watched a bulldozer cut a fire line along the perimeter of the blaze.

“This is an annual thing,” said Ingraham, who also refused to evacuate.

The blaze quickly spread after breaking out Thursday afternoon along the Santa Ana River bottom between Riverside and an unincorporated part of the county, fire officials said. Flames up to 30 feet high consumed palm trees and thick patches of brush along a jagged half-mile front as firefighters sprayed water on rooftops and as residents with garden hoses doused embers in their yards. A thick plume of smoke was visible for miles.

About 200 firefighters, aided by a water-dropping helicopter, battled the blaze into the night as residents in several Riverside neighborhoods were advised to leave. Earlier in the day, the temperature at the nearby Riverside Municipal Airport hit 80 degrees and light Santa Ana winds fanned the flames.

By Thursday night, the winds were calm. Fire officials said that was providing ground crews an opportunity to beat back flames that had come perilously close to homes.

“Once the winds calm down, it allows us to get in there and do an aggressive attack,” Capt. Lucas Spellman of the Riverside County Fire Department said.

As fire crews swarmed hot spots, a mobile home about a quarter of a mile from the brush fire began burning and ignited a propane tank, which exploded into flames. Fire officials were investigating whether that blaze was ignited by embers from the brush fire.

Fire officials said crews would continue to douse hot spots through the night.

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-- Phil Willon in Riverside and Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles

Photo: Firefighters battle the flames Thursday night. Credit: Terry Pierson / Press-Enterprise

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