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FALLS FIRE UPDATE: 85 Percent Contained, Ortega Highway Remains Closed

Smoke from the Falls Fire, Aug. 5, 2013.  Courtesy photo
Smoke from the Falls Fire, Aug. 5, 2013. Courtesy photo
UPDATED at 10:01 a.m. AUG. 8, 2013: Firefighters have taken the upper hand on the Falls Fire burning west of Lake Elsinore off the Ortega Highway.

At press time, the blaze is 85 contained and the acreage is still holding at 1,416 burned. Full containment is expected Friday evening.

The Ortega Highway remains closed in both directions. The California Highway Patrol issued a statement, saying residents are being allowed access to their homes, but only with a CHP escort.
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Construction work began Thursday following the award of a $1.7 million contract to repair damage on the Ortega due to the fire, a Caltrans official said. 

Caltrans anticipates one-way traffic control will begin for all commuters once the guardrail installation is complete, which is currently estimated to wrap up Aug. 20. 

The U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and Riverside County fire personnel formed a unified command to battle the blaze, which is burning in steep terrain accessible only by foot, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Vickie Wright said Wednesday.

The number of personnel assigned to the blaze is now just under 1,000.

The federal government will be covering some of the expense of fighting the fire, it was announced Tuesday. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a request submitted by the state for federal aid was approved, meaning up to 75 percent of firefighting costs are eligible for reimbursement through FEMA.

The City of Lake Elsinore will likely incur few costs due to the blaze.

"At this time, it appears the fire only fell within the federal and some of the county's jurisdiction. Therefore, we do not anticipate many costs associated with the Falls Fire," said City of Lake Elsinore spokeswoman Nicole Dailey. "However, this fire demonstrates the city council's proactive approach to protecting the city from the high costs associated with wildfires should they occur within our jurisdiction." Click here for more on the city's proactive approach.

Firefighters will again watch the afternoon winds today.

"Lake Elsinore is known for its updrafts and thermals," Wright said Tuesday evening, noting that, typically, the afternoon hours are difficult for firefighters. 

Between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. -- "it's a critical time," said U.S.F.S. spokesman Ralph Gonzalez. "Winds shift and it becomes very dangerous."

According to Wright, four U.S.F.S. firefighters have sustained heat-related injuries during the course of the Falls Fire outbreak Monday morning. One civilian was also injured, she said.

"I'm not certain that one [civilian] was really related to the fire," she continued, but did not provide specifics.

All five people have been treated and released, Wright added.

Earlier Tuesday, Gonzalez reported that a residence in Morrell Canyon caught fire just prior to the Falls Fire break out at around 10 a.m. Monday. Whether that was a trailer or house remains uncertain. However, the property located in the 34000 block of Ortega Highway has been the focus of investigation Tuesday afternoon as the starting point of the blaze. 

"We can't say yet whether that caused this fire," Gonzalez said Tuesday. "We are still investigating."

Firefighters have kept the fire at under 1,500 acres since Monday evening. 

"For the crews going in there and cutting lines, this is a long, tedious, hot process," Wright told City News Service. "It's very steep terrain, only accessible by foot. But we're holding our own."

Ash and smoke had fallen over the Elsinore Valley and neighboring communities, making it hard to breathe at times. The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory Wednesday for Lake Elsinore, Perris Valley and the Temecula Valley, cautioning residents to avoid unnecessary outdoor activity to avoid exposure to smoke settling over the region.

All scheduled outdoor school-related practices were cancelled Tuesday by the Lake Elsinore Unified School District due to poor air quality across the Lake Elsinore Valley, said Mark Dennis, spokesman for the district. 

Activities have resumed.

An evacuation was lifted across Lakeland Village Monday night, but firefighting personnel and equipment were still working in and around the affected areas, according to a statement released Tuesday by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. 

Patch spotted firefighters working along the ridge above Grand Avenue Tuesday morning.

"Residents are encouraged to please use caution while driving back into the area and resuming day-to-day activities. The Riverside County Sheriff's Department will continue security patrols in Lakeland Village, Rancho Capistrano and Decker Canyon as they repopulate and settle," the sheriff's statement read.

All evacuation orders for the Falls Fire have been lifted, Gonzalez confirmed Tuesday night.

Riverside Drive at Lakeshore Drive, Riverside Drive at La Laguna, Machado at Grand Avenue, and Grand Avenue in Lakeland Village were temporarily closed due to the blaze.

Throughout Monday, evacuations were ordered throughout unincorporated areas due to the blaze.

"Lakeland Village is under mandatory evacuation," Wright said late Monday afternoon before the order there was lifted. "The flames are right in their backyard."

The fire initially broke out in Morrell Canyon in the Cleveland National Forest around 10 a.m. Monday and then spread to Decker Canyon and forced mandatory evacuations, Jake Rodriguez, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service reported at 2:15 p.m.

Shortly after that time, Wright confirmed mandatory evacuations were also underway in the Rancho Capistrano community. The area contains at least 50 ranches, she said.

The flames crossed the South Main Divide Monday afternoon, and headed to Lakeland Village. 

Homes along the Ortega Highway near the Lookout Roadhouse were being threatened Monday afternoon by flames, according to a Patch reporter on the scene.

Wright reported that homes were threatened, and she said one outbuilding was damaged.

Wright said two outbuildings have been damaged in the blaze. The earlier residential fire is not included in the damage assessment, but that could change as the investigation continues.

Patch confirmed that Mountainside Ministries Christian Church, located at 30515 Ortega Highway, sustained damageClick here for more on that story.

Livestock displaced by the blaze were being sent to Elsinore High School. Wright said she is not aware of any livestock deaths, despite the high number of ranches in the area.

“People were able to get their horses squared away,” Wright said.

An emergency operations center was established in Lake Elsinore at Lakeside High School, 32593 Riverside Drive, the same location where the American Red Cross had set up an emergency evacuation shelter for displaced residents.

As of 9 p.m. Monday, only one resident and her brother remained in the shelter, which has since closed.

Riverside County Animal Services was coordinating efforts on the ground and senior personnel with trucks were assisting with pets, said John Welsh, spokesman for the agency. People who may have had pets displaced or rescued from the fire should contact the county at Shelterinfo@rivcocha.org.

Wildomar was on standby Monday, but there were no reports of immediate threat from the fire to the city. City Manager Gary Nordquist was out in the field Monday evening to check residential neighborhoods in his city. Along with firefighters on the fire lines, Nordquist said the Wildomar Community Emergency Response Team is at the ready should fire conditions change.

While the U.S.F.S. and Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department officials are the central command on the fire, several agencies have been working on the firefighting efforts, including the Orange County Fire Authority and the Corona Fire Department, as well as other state and local agencies. The Riverside County Sheriff's Department has been assisting with evacuations, Rodriguez said.

“We have several different agencies all working with each other," Wright said. "I think they can knock this down pretty quick.”

The fire has prompted several Cleveland National Forest closures, including El Cariso Campground off El Cariso and Main Divide roads, the El Cariso south picnic area, the Wildomar Off-Highway Vehicle Area and the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial. 

Rodriguez said dozens of engine crews, along with inmate hand crews, backed by air tankers and water-dropping helicopters, were working to contain the wildfire. 

As of Monday afternoon, Wright said a DC-10 was also assisting with overhead efforts.

Water was being pulled from Lake Elsinore to combat the blaze and a staging area was being used near the lake for some overhead equipment.

Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District has a water tank in the area near the fire. The tank holds more than 2 million gallons of safe drinking water and is stationed at the base of Ortega Highway for nearby homes. There were EVMWD generators at the scene if power had become unavailable to the tank, according to EVMWD spokesman Greg Morrison.

Speaking to Morrison Tuesday morning, there were no indications of problems with the tank. 

Questions about tap water safety should be directed to EVMWD at (951) 674-3146.   

Although school is not yet in session, some Lake Elsinore Unified School District staffers are on campuses, preparing for the 2013/14 year that begins next week. Lakeland Village School on Grand Avenue closed Tuesday due to the blaze, but reopened Wednesday in time for registration.

All other schools and district offices remained open.

Wright, who lives on a ranch in the fire-impacted area, sent this message to her neighbors and residents affected by the blaze: "We’re taking care of you and we will take care of you.”

The City of Lake Elsinore has set up a webpage where residents can go for fire updates.

Check back for updates.

--City News Service contributed to this report.


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