Sandalwood Fire: Woman, 89, Found Dead in Mobile Home After 823-Acre Blaze Destroys Community in Calimesa

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One person was found dead and two remain unaccounted for after a blaze, ignited by a burning load of trash yesterday afternoon, destroyed dozens of residences in Calimesa, officials said Friday.

The Sandalwood Fire has burned 823 acres, or about 1.28 square miles, and was 10% contained, according to CalFire Riverside. Although authorities have not identified the person found dead, family members feared the victim may be their relative, 89-year-old Lois Arvickson. The Associated Press previously reported she was missing.

No other injuries have been reported.

CalFire confirmed the blaze was ignited by burning trash dumped by a garbage truck driver in the area of Calimesa Boulevard and Sandalwood Drive at around 2 p.m. Thursday, and that flames spread into vegetation and into the Calimesa Mobile Home Park.

A resident said he saw a garbage truck driver who had to dump the vehicle's load because it was burning.

Seventy-four homes in that community were destroyed and 16 were damaged, according to CalFire. The Sheriff's Department estimated that a total of 90 structures have been damaged or destroyed.

Authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders for those living south of Seventh Street, east of County Line Road. More than 500 homes have been evacuated, according to officials. (Residents can enter their address on this website to determine if they're in the evacuation area.)

A death investigation is underway after one person's remains were found in a mobile home, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said, adding that they're still looking into whether or not criminal charges will be made in connection with the incident.

Vance Wooten, who lives in the mobile home park, said he knew Lois Arvickson and was trying to help her out but wasn't able. He was taking a nap when he heard what sounded like a propane tank exploding and looked outside to see the sky looking as dark as night during the daytime. Then he saw the flames.

"Our whole palm tree out front was on fire and two trailers behind us were on fire and I just ran to the neighbor's house to try to get her out," Wooten said.

Wooten said Arvickson asked him for help getting her car out but he needed to help another neighbor who has an oxygen tank, Mary Lou.

"And while I was running to get Mary Lou and her oxygen tank, (Arvickson) went back into the house, and after I got Mary Lou in the car and got her ready, I went back to check on Lois and the whole house and garage was on fire,"

He said the flames engulfed Arvickson's home within five minutes.

"My prayers go out to Lois's family," he said. "We have talked to a lot of our neighbors already, and Lois is the only one we haven't heard back from."

Crews remained on high alert on Friday and were working to prevent the flames from spreading further, said CalFire spokeswoman Cathey Mattingly.

"We’re really concerned about the wind activity, as it's really picking up," Mattingly said.

Red Cross has set up a shelter at Mesa Grande Academy on 975 Fremont St. The care center at Canyon Springs High School in Moreno Valley and Redlands East Valley High School have closed, the organization announced late Thursday.

Many residents expressed sorrow over their homes and missing pets.

Melissa, who lost her home, said this was the second fire that she's experienced.

Her parents' ashes were burned in yesterday's fire, and one of her dogs is still missing, she said.

Other blazes burning in Riverside County

The Sandalwood Fire is one of many fires burning in Southern California as Santa Ana winds and dry conditions increased wildfire risk in the region.

About 17 miles southeast of Calimesa, residents in South Highland Springs, south of the 10 Freeway and west of South Highland Home Road, were previously told by CalFire to leave due to a 75-acre fire that erupted on Thursday just after 5 p.m. The affected areas remained under evacuation warnings on Friday morning. The blaze, called the Wolf Fire,  was 25% contained.

Residents can enter their address here to see if they're under an evacuation warning, CalFire said.

The Reche Fire, which was reported just before 1 p.m. on Thursday, has burned 350 acres and was 60% contained as of Friday afternoon. That blaze has stopped spreading and all previous evacuation orders have been lifted, CalFire said.

Fire officials said they have so far maintained control of the Wolf and Reche fires but remain concerned as Santa Ana winds continued to blow in the region.

KTLA's Marissa Wenzke contributed to this report.

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