By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A wind-driven brush fire burning out of control in a drought-parched Southern California wildland on Wednesday threatened a wealthy community in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents, officials said.
The fast-moving blaze, which sent smoke billowing down the foothills toward large suburban houses, comes amid a dangerous combination of unseasonably hot weather and fierce Santa Ana winds that put much of Southern California's brushy hillsides at risk.
By Wednesday afternoon, the blaze had scorched 1,000 acres on the edge of Rancho Cucamonga, a suburban community 42 miles east of Los Angeles, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
More than 706 firefighters battled the blaze, dubbed the Etiwanda Fire, which was burning in conditions that the state doesn't usually see until the end of a long, dry summer, he added.
It was the second major wildfire this year and comes just days after Governor Jerry Brown ordered emergency response agencies to streamline their processes for adding staff and purchasing equipment to fight fires in a season already well under way.
In one neighborhood, firetrucks sat in front of two-story homes as dark gray smoke hung in the sky above them, live television footage showed. The flames burned in the foothills just beyond the houses.
By late afternoon, residents of 1,650 houses had been ordered to evacuate, and shelters for people and animals had been set up. The evacuation order was lifted in the early evening, without explanation, but fire officials said they expected the blaze to grow overnight as windy conditions continue.
"As long as there is still wind on it, it's going to continue to grow," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Lee Beyer. By 6:30 p.m. pacific daylight time, the fire was not contained at all, he said.
The blaze broke out in the San Bernardino National Forest at about 8 a.m., driven by winds of up to 80 miles per hour (129 km/h), which is extremely gusty for the region, officials said.
Television news footage showed bright orange flames in the brush, near towers for power transmission lines. Parents and children rushed away from local schools enveloped in smoky air, their hair and shirts flapping in the wind.
Officials have deployed 55 fire engines against the blaze, according to wildfire tracking site InciWeb. But because of the high winds, officials have not been able to deploy aircraft to fight the fire.
California officials have kept staffing levels for wildland firefighters at elevated levels since last year because the state is in the midst of its worst drought in decades.
"The drought has absolutely set the stage for a potentially very busy and very dangerous fire season," Berlant said.
"As we move into the summer months, conditions are only going to get hotter, they're only going to get dryer, and so the likelihood of large and damaging fires increases," he said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)