Thousands Evacuated as Calif. Mountain Fire Rages

Evacuation orders remain in effect for the 22,800 acre fire that has burned since Monday

A wildfire in the scenic San Jacinto Mountains spread to within two miles of the Southern California resort destination of Palm Springs Thursday, covering more than 35 square miles and prompting more evacuations.

By its fourth day, the Mountain Fire had scorched 22,800 acres and destroyed 23 structures, including seven homes. Some 6,000 people have been ordered evacuated from the blaze, burning about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

By Thursday night, the cost of the fire had reached $6.1 million, Forest Service spokesman John Miller said in an statement.

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At an early afternoon news conference on Thursday, officials said the massive blaze -- though within two miles of Palm Springs' western border -- was being kept from populated areas.

"We are putting in place a strategy to work our way east ... to contain the fire,'' U.S. Forest Service fire Chief Jeanne Pincha-Tulley said.

"We've lost three permanent homes and three mobile homes, but we got everybody out safe and sound,'' Pincha-Tulley said. "We've got hotshots, Cal Fire resources and quite a fleet of aircraft available. We're doing pretty well. We are the national priority right now.''

Nearly 3,000 firefighters with 228 fire engines were working on the Mountain Fire, according to a Thursday morning report from fire officials. From the air, 17 helicopters, 10 fixed-wing aircraft -- including a DC-10 -- were battling flames.

The fight against the fire had so far cost about $5.5 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Area residents, meanwhile, dealt 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."

Many residents such as Barb Lundquist chose to sleep in their cars.

"I didn't think it was going to happen,” she said. “I didn't think they were going to evacuate us."

All she could think about was whether she would lose her Idyllwild home she's lived in for three decades.

"I'm exhausted,” she said. “I don't even know what time it is."

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. Residents were allowed to return to Bonita Vista and the Apple Canyon area Thursday night. Details were posted online.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which takes visitors nearly 6,000 feet up steep Chino Canyon, was closed Thursday.

Pincha-Tulley said the expanded evacuations were necessary 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 last night so we can secure the area without worrying about folks getting in the way.''

Crews from many agencies were working on the fire, and a news release from a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said firefighters' focus was on protecting homes in Idyllwild and elsewhere.

"White, red and green fire engines and crew trucks can be seen throughout the town. The fire is color blind," Forest Service spokesman Miller wrote.

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;
  • Large and small animals can be brought to the San Jacinto Animal Shelter, 581 S. Grand Ave.

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