Progress fighting fast-moving wildfire outside L.A.

BANNING, Calif. Firefighters were reporting progress in fighting a Southern California wildfire despite strong winds. It was the biggest of a series of fires statewide that broke out amid dry, gusty conditions.

The fast-moving blaze was burning across 4-1/2 square miles of Riverside County, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

It erupted just after noon Wednesday, as winds of 29 mph drove the flames westward through largely undeveloped foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, but it was dangerously close to subdivisions to the south, in the city of Banning.

It has destroyed one home there. Hundreds of people from Banning neighborhoods, including all the residents of a mobile home park, had evacuated in the afternoon, but all except those from one street had been allowed to return home by late Wednesday night.

Fire officials said more than 400 firefighters were battling the blaze with the help of six water-dropping helicopters and six air tankers. They estimated it was 35 percent contained.

Banning resident Phyllis Zakian told CBS Los Angeles. station KCBS-TV her "cable guy" warned her of the blaze.

"He said, 'Ma'am, I don't think I can come back because your hill is on fire.' It's pretty scary to know it's that close," she said.

Debbie Callin told the station, "I could see my neighbors running around. I could hear the screaming. I saw the fire trucks coming. We saw horses running up the street, sheep running around. It was out of control."

Much of Southern California is under red flag warnings for fire danger due to heat, wind and low humidity levels.

Wind-fueled fires also have hit the wine country north of San Francisco. The Yellow Fire in Sonoma County was 50 percent contained after burning 125 acres, while fire in Napa County was fully contained after burning 75 acres.

Joe Kiener, 53, was on his lunch hour at the childhood home in Banning where he still lived when he saw smoke approaching. He and his dog were already pulling out when a deputy came up and told him to evacuate. A few hours, later the house was destroyed.

"It's a total loss," Kiener told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. "It really hasn't hit me yet. But it hurts me to lose the house."

The house next door was untouched after a timely wind change.

"It was close!" Kiener's neighbor, David Pena, said. "God's grace, man. It's a miracle."

State fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the blazes across of California could be an ominous sign.

"Statewide, our fire activity is up over 60 percent of normal," Berlant said. "It has everything to do with the fact that conditions are so dry, then you add wind, making the perfect conditions for a fire."

Forecasters said high pressure over the Great Basin would send Santa Ana winds through and below passes and canyons and near coastal foothills until Thursday afternoon.

"We're a bit drier than normal at this time and seeing conditions that we would usually see in June," Berlant said. "If this is an indicator of what's to come, then we're going to be in for a very busy fire season."

In Butte County, a fast-moving blaze called the Panther Fire has burned about half a square mile since it was sparked Wednesday morning, state fire officials said.

A fire in the Central Valley county of Madera that burned 274 acres was fully contained.