Calif. Mountain Fire Nears Idyllwild Amid Strong Wind Warnings

Erratic winds became cause for concern as the blaze was inching closer to Idyllwild

Fire crews battling a fast-growing wildfire that ripped through Southern California's scenic San Jacinto Mountains were bracing for potential storms Friday evening as the powerful blaze raged on its fifth day, prompting a new evacuation warning.

The Mountain Fire had burned more than 38 square miles by Friday, reaching over the crest of the mountains and within two miles of the western border of Palm Springs. A blanket of ash and smoke draped the resort destination.

The blaze was also getting dangerously close to Idyllwild, where the flames were more active than those nearing Palm Springs, US Forest Service spokesman John Miller told NBC4 Friday.

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At about 11 a.m., the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said the community of Pine Cove, north of Idyllwild, was being given a warning about a possible upcoming evacuation order. Anyone who feels threatened by the Mountain Fire should leave the area, where there are about 700 homes, authorities said.

Health officials Friday night told residents in the following areas to boil their water before using it for drinking, making ice or cooking: Pine Springs Camp, Ronald McDonald Camp (AKA Rainbow Camp), Bonita Vista Road, Living Free Animal Sanctuary, Fleming Ranch, May Valley Road, Zen Center, Hurkey Creek, and Apple Canyon Road.

Until further notice, residents should use bottled water, water disinfection tables, or boil their water for one minute and let it cool before using. Officials expect to have the problem fixed within 2 to 3 days.

Residents with questions about water safety can call Zen Mountain at 951-659-5272; Pine Springs Ranch at 951-659-4131; or the California Department of Public Health at 619-525-4354.

Meantime, more than 3,300 firefighters were on scene, and had worked overnight into Friday to "corral" the blaze away from Idyllwild and surrounding mountain communities, pushing it instead to the north.

Some erratic winds forecast for Friday became a cause for heavy concern, and Miller predicted "extreme fire behavior given unstable atmospheric conditions," citing the possibility of thunderstorms. Draft winds could produce new spot fires, he said in a morning news release.

On Friday afternoon, Fire spokesman Capt. Mike Lindbery said a storm front headed toward the region in could provide some relief with cooler weather and a chance of rain, but it might make the situation much more volatile with lightning and strong winds.

In the Pine Cove evacuation warning, authorities described a dangerous "ice cap" that could form atop a column of smoke and ash northwest of the fire. The smoke column could create create a thunderstorm, and associated lightning and wind.

"Eventually the weight of the ice will cause the column to collapse. When the column collapses, strong downdraft winds push the fire in multiple directions, placing firefighters at risk," the warning stated.

The blaze, burning 100 miles east of Los Angeles, had scorched 27,179 acres by Friday evening and destroyed 23 structures, including seven homes. The fire remained 15 percent contained Friday evening, according to an online incident report.

The cost to battle the raging fire reached $10.9 million by Friday evening, Miller said in a statement. Officials had said Thursday that a continuing investigation showed that human activity caused the blaze, but wouldn't say if it was intentionally or accidentally set.

More than 260 fire engines were working on the Mountain Fire, according to a Friday morning report from fire officials. From the air, 19 helicopters, 10 fixed-wing aircraft -- including a DC-10 -- were fighting flames.

A smoke advisory was again issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which said that unhealthy air conditions are likely to occur in the Hemet/San Jacinto Valley area, the Banning Pass area, the Coachella Valley, and the northeastern Anza area. Smoke can also make air unhealthy for people with healthy issues in the Perris Valley area, the the metropolitan Riverside County area, the Big Bear Lake area; and the central and western San Bernardino Mountains, AQMD said.

Evacuation orders had been expanded Wednesday, but several communities were reopened to residents by Friday, including Apple Canyon, Bonita Vista, Fobes Canyon, and Spring Canyon Ranch.

State Route 74 was reopened to traffic Thursday night, but State Route 243 remained closed from the intersection with 74 to the Nature Center, south of Pine Cove.

U.S. Forest Service fire Chief Jeanne Pincha-Tulley said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that the evacuation had been expanded in case the fire took a turn toward Idyllwild.

"If the fire goes over the slopes and makes a major run (downhill), we wouldn't have much time to get people out of there,'' Pincha-Tulley said. "We asked everybody to leave (Wednesday night) so we can secure the area without worrying about folks getting in the way.''

On Thursday, she called the Mountain Fire "the national priority."

Meanwhile, area residents were dealing with the fear of losing their homes. The nearby town of Idyllwild looked like a ghost town after it was evacuated Wednesday night.

"It's grown into a monster that we haven't seen before," said San Jacinto Valley resident Ralph Savory, who was packed up and ready to go if deputies ordered him to evacuate. "We're waiting for the word. Got our cars packed. All we got left is us and our dogs."

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which takes visitors nearly 6,000 feet up steep Chino Canyon, was closed Thursday because of unhealthy air quality due to smoke.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for Idyllwild east of State Route 243, Fern Valley, Trails End, Mount San Jacinto State Park and nearby San Bernardino National Forest areas. Details were posted online.

The edge of the blaze was nearing Saddle Junction, an area where many popular hiking trails -- including the famed Pacific Crest Trail -- converge in the state park, a map release Friday morning showed.

The Mountain Fire broke out Monday afternoon in steep, rugged terrain on private property just off State Highway 243 in the community of Mountain Center, south of Idyllwild (map).

Evacuation centers were set up at the following locations:

  • Hemet High School, 41701 E. Stetson Ave., Hemet;
  • Hamilton High School, 57430 Mitchell Road, Anza;
  • Beaumont High School, 39139 Cherry Valley Blvd., Cherry Valley;
  • Large and small animals can be brought to the San Jacinto Animal Shelter, 581 S. Grand Ave.

The fire was about 12 miles from the site of the 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and destroyed 34 homes. The area has not burned in many years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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