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Wildfire forces evacuation of Viejas residents

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ALPINE, Calif. - An unseasonable wildfire initially forced evacuation of as many as 300 people from the Viejas reservation in eastern San Diego County and then raged to the southwest and south, pushed by the high Santa Ana winds.

The fire began shortly before 4:30 a.m. Jan. 3 near the Viejas tribal headquarters and casino. Officials said it was started by a car fire at a viewing area along Interstate 8 near Alpine and quickly spread, forcing authorities to close a 12-mile stretch of highway and evacuate homes on each side.

The high winds made it difficult for fire-fighting planes to enter the area Wednesday and early Thursday. Firefighters were counting on aerial support from two National Guard C-130s equipped to drop pressurized loads of flame retardant.

Hundreds of homes, casinos on the Viejas and Sycuan reservations and a San Diego County detention center were evacuated, forcing many people into makeshift shelters at local schools and a community center.

The 24-hour Viejas casino and large outlet mall were evacuated. Gambling at the casino was halted and about 250 gamblers reportedly left the building. "There was enough time for everyone to cash out," Security Chief Lyn Reynolds told the Associated Press. "There was no panic. It was an orderly fashion."

Guards planned to remain at the casino, protected by a large parking lot, unless flames threatened the building, Reynolds said.

By midday Jan. 4, flames had consumed more than 10,200 acres and the fire was believed to be less than 10 percent contained, though more than 2,000 firefighters had battled through the night. Fresh crews were brought in on Thursday. The California Air National Guard was on standby alert.

Some 95 fire engines and bulldozers were on the line through the night and helicopters and air tankers were expected to resume air drops as conditions permitted.

No human injuries were reported though a fleeing vehicle apparently hit a horse.

At least four houses and four outbuildings had been destroyed along with five utility trailers. Some residents, taken to evacuation centers on Wednesday, were allowed to return to their homes that evening.

Clouds of smoke and ash were visible from as far away as San Diego, some 30 miles to the west. The smoky haze was thick enough to show up on satellite images.

Viejas is in the heart of the Cleveland National Forest and sources say the area had not had a major fire in the last 30 years, allowing a heavy fuel load to build up in the area.

About 50 miles northwest in Riverside County, a 150-acre wildfire briefly threatened four homes and cause one minor injury to a firefighter. That blaze was being contained early Thursday.

The fire moved in a southwesterly direction, driven by Santa Ana winds from the northeast, the result of a high-pressure system over Nevada. These winds result when the high-pressure system drains itself toward the Pacific Ocean bringing warm, windy and dry conditions to Southern California.

Normally, fire season is in the summer months when a high-pressure system off the coast of California blocks Pacific rains from entering the region for several months. The condition usually dissipates in the winter but this year has been unusually warm and dry in Southern California.

Since July 1, Viejas had just 3 inches of rain, including a single inch in November and again in December.

The National Weather Service reported temperatures in the upper 70s in the area around Viejas with 60 to 65 mile per hour wind gusts. Though the conditions were not quite up to the standard 90-degree summer temperatures, combined with the high winds they created severe fire hazards.

Although no one could be reached in Viejas, an anonymous resident implored Indian Country Today to "Please send prayers."