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Gusty winds fan Southern California wildfire

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — A wildfire driven by surging Santa Ana winds sent a choking pall of smoke through Southern California foothill neighborhoods Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of at least 1,650 homes and the closure of at least seven schools.

No homes burned, but the smoke prompted mandatory evacuation orders for several areas of Rancho Cucamonga, nestled at the base of the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles.

More than 700 firefighters battled the fire without air support. The winds gusted at times to 70 mph, grounding low-flying firefighting aircraft, although they remained on standby.

Even where homes weren't in imminent danger, the threat remained.

A blaze fanned by gusts "tends to throw embers and brands ahead of itself, sometimes a mile," said Chon Bribiescas, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "That's the insidious part of a wind-driven fire."

Leo Lemelin, 67, and his family busily loaded several cars with belongings as they prepared to leave. "We're trying to pack up everything we can into our cars from 45 years of marriage and eight grandchildren," he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

The fire was reported about 8 a.m. and burned through 1,000 acres of brush by late afternoon.

Utilities reported about 8,000 people lost power because of wind-related problems such as downed power lines.

The strong gusting winds eased at sunset and the mandatory evacuation orders were canceled. But authorities said it was still too gusty for aircraft to join the firefight.

The winds were expected to continue easing overnight, but could pick up again today.

Gusty winds fan Southern California wildfire 04/30/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2014 12:05am]

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