Crews battle wildfires amid brutal heat wave in California

Flames from the Ranch Fire burn the hills in Azusa, Calif.
Flames from the Ranch Fire burn the hills in Azusa, Calif., on Friday, 25 miles east of Los Angeles.
Apu Gomes | AFP via Getty Images

Firefighters struggled to contain three wildfires near Los Angeles on Saturday as forecasters warned that the risk of new fires was high with temperatures expected to spike and humidity levels to drop across California.

In Northern California, the National Weather Service warned fire crews of the possibility of a rare fire tornado.

A huge forest fire that prompted evacuations north of Los Angeles flared up around noon, sending up a cloud of smoke as it headed toward thick, dry brush in the Angeles National Forest. Although it was burning into forest land, evacuation orders remained in effect for the western Antelope Valley because erratic winds in the forecast could push the fire toward homes, fire spokesman Jake Miller said.

Fire crews managed to stop the fire's movement down to the desert floor when it flared up Friday afternoon. In one dramatic moment, several firefighters ran to safety when a longhorn bull that was apparently escaping the blaze charged at them.

The Lake Fire was just 12 percent contained as of Saturday morning, and after threatening more than 5,400 homes, it had charred more than 23 square miles of brush and trees. Fire officials said 21 buildings had been destroyed, including at least five homes.

Firefighters were struggling in steep, rugged terrain amid scorching temperatures.

Many areas of the state saw record-breaking heat through the weekend, with triple-digit temperatures and unhealthy air predicted for many parts of the state. There also was a chance of isolated thunderstorms worsening the fire threat by creating dry lightning and strong downdrafts, fire officials said.

North of Lake Tahoe, the Loyalton Fire has burned 31 square miles east of Reno, Nev. Weather service officials said the fire was showing extreme behavior — including the possibility of "fire tornadoes" in the turbulent atmosphere around the fire.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the fire area — and a Weather Service forecaster told the Sacramento Bee that it likely was the first time a tornado warning was issued outside of a traditional thunderstorm environment.

That fire was just 5 percent contained Saturday night.

There was also no containment of a blaze that blackened foothills above the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa. It churned through 2.3 square miles of brush on Thursday and was moving away from homes. Evacuation orders issued to residents were lifted early Friday.

Another blaze came dangerously close to a neighborhood in the city of Corona, east of Los Angeles, before crews controlled it. And a Northern California fire in the community of Sloughhouse, near Sacramento, burned about 500 acres before firefighters stopped its forward spread.

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