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Diesel soot is behind the giant Apple wildfire in California, officials say

The 26,000-acre blaze, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, has forced the evacuation of thousands in San Bernardino County.
Image: APple Fire
Firefighters work against the Apple Fire near Banning, Calif., on Aug. 2, 2020.Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

A car's diesel soot caused a large Southern California wildfire that forced the evacuation of thousands and is threatening hundreds of homes, authorities said Monday.

In an interview, a spokesman with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said that witnesses saw a car shooting large diesel particles out of its exhaust system Friday afternoon in the small Riverside County community of Cherry Valley, roughly 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

“They’re almost like a small marble, sometimes larger, and when they land on dry vegetation, they're extremely hot," Cal Fire spokesman Fernando Herrera said. "They can ignite any type of fuel."

Investigators haven't identified the vehicle or its driver, he said, but they found the particles in the area where the fire began. In a statement, fire officials described the emissions as a "vehicle malfunction."

What began as several spot fires had grown into the 26,850 acre-Apple fire by Tuesday morning, and had destroyed one home and spread into the San Bernardino National Forest, officials said.

Physical evidence found at the scene supported the eyewitness claims, the statement said. A spokesperson for the wildfire response did not immediately respond to a request for additional details.

More than 2,000 firefighters are working to extinguish the blaze, which was only 15-percent contained by Tuesday morning, according to Cal Fire. Nearly 8,000 people have been evacuated from 2,500 homes in San Bernardino County.

Fire officials said low moisture and high temperatures had intensified the blaze. Images of the Apple fire showed a massive column of smoke rising above the national forest.

Reports of fires spotted on Apple Tree Lane in the community of Beaumont first came in on Friday evening, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Climate scientists have said that parts of California could see a brutal wildfire season this year after huge swaths of the state had one of its driest winters on record. The potential health effects of smoke and the need to evacuate large groups of people during a pandemic have also left public health experts worried.

The state has so far recorded nearly 5,800 wildfires. There have been no fatalities and 38 buildings have been damaged or destroyed, according to Cal Fire. There were 7,860 wildfires last year and in 2018, the state recorded its deadliest wildfire ever, the Camp fire, which left 85 people dead and destroyed the town of Paradise.