Fire crews respond to a fire that damaged a home on Wednesday May 1, 2013 in Knights Valley, Calif. Crews battled two small wildfires on Wednesday in California wine country that were pushed by gusty winds. |AP Photo | The Press Democrat, Kent Porter|

Fire crews respond to a fire that damaged a home on Wednesday May 1, 2013 in Knights Valley, Calif. Crews battled two small wildfires on Wednesday in California wine country that were pushed by gusty winds. (AP Photo/The Press Democrat, Kent Porter)

BANNING, Calif. (AP) — Firefighters were able to beat back a powerful wildfire that bore down on a dry Southern California city, limiting the damages to a single house and curbing the threat to hundreds more.

But the difficult conditions that helped fuel the 4½ square-mile blaze in Riverside County on Wednesday could be even worse in parts of the state Thursday.

"Today was a transition day," state fire spokesman Julie Hutchinson said. "Tomorrow is the big wind day"

Winds of 20-30 mph are expected, along with nearly non-existent humidity and an abundance of wildfire fuel.

"The grass, brush and trees are very volatile. They're ready to burn," Hutchinson said. "Everything is just very dry. And not just in Southern California, statewide."

Forecasters said high pressure would send strong winds through Southern California's passes and canyons and near coastal foothills Thursday.

The fire broke out just after noon about 90 miles east of Los Angeles in the largely undeveloped foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains north of the city of Banning, where hundreds evacuated their homes.

More than 400 firefighters helped by six helicopters and six air tankers turned the orange open flame near the city into sheets of white smoke and had the fire 35 percent contained by nightfall, county fire officials said.

The aircraft were grounded for the night and all evacuations were called off.

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But the fire remained large and volatile as it moved away from Banning and toward the nearby communities of Beaumont and Cherry Valley.

The stand from firefighters came too late for Joe Kiener, 53, who lost the house he'd lived in since his mother bought it in the 1970s.

Kiener was home on a lunch break when he stepped outside to check on his barking dog and saw heavy smoke approaching. He took the dog and started to leave just as a deputy arrived to tell him to evacuate, but it wasn't easy.

"When I left I went around the corner and I got engulfed in a big cloud of smoke," said Kiener, who could see so little the deputy had to yell to him how to get out.

He got out safely, but the next time he saw the house was in a phone picture sent by his neighbor. The roof was on fire, and he knew it would be destroyed, but he shrugged off the loss.

"My mom passed away a month ago. The day before Easter," Kiener said. So that was the biggest thing that hurt my heart is losing her. Losing the house is just minimal. We can rebuild."

In Northern California, firefighters were battling fires fueled by gusty winds in wine country north of San Francisco.

In Sonoma County, a fire north of Calistoga was fifty percent contained after burning 125 acres. Another fire in nearby Napa County was fully contained after burning 75 acres.

In Butte County, a fast-moving blaze called the Panther Fire has burned about half a square mile since it was sparked Wednesday morning, state fire officials said.

State fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the blazes across of California could be an ominous sign.

"Statewide, our fire activity is up over 60 percent of normal," Berlant said. "It has everything to do with the fact that conditions are so dry, then you add wind, making the perfect conditions for a fire."

"We're a bit drier than normal at this time and seeing conditions that we would usually see in June," Berlant said. "If this is an indicator of what's to come, then we're going to be in for a very busy fire season."