“Dangerous Fire” Continues to Spread in Banning Area

Winds pushed the blaze north toward more communities, and at least three people were injured its first night

A raging wildfire that spread rapidly in Southern California mountain foothill communities was scorching more rugged terrain Thursday, and the reported number of homes destroyed was expected to increase.

Five firefighters and one resident had been injured by the Silver Fire, which prompted evacuations in several communities as it raced through nearly 16 square miles between Banning and Idyllwild in less than 24 hours.

At least 26 homes and a commercial building had been destroyed, according to a Thursday night update from the Riverside County Fire Department. Two structures have been damaged by Silver Fire flames.

At a Thursday afternoon news conference, Cal Fire Riverside Chief John R. Hawkins said more than 500 structures had been threatened in the blaze, which moved rapidly and jumped a highway after erupting about 2 p.m. Wednesday about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

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Two firefighters were being treated for heat exhaustion after facing flames on Wednesday, Hawkins said. He did not have details, but said two other firefighters were also injured.

The fire's size grew Thursday night to 14,000 acres, or about 22 square miles, according to an online update from the Riverside County Fire Department. Containment was at 20 percent.

During the afternoon news conference, Hawkins said the "dangerous fire" was still spreading, burning both up the mountain and toward Cabazon.

Steady winds forecasted for Thursday were a major concern for firefighters.

"Hopefully, as we progress through the day we'll be able to gain some ground," said Jeff LaRusso, of the Riverside County Fire Department.

An estimated 400 homes and more than 1,800 people were affected by the evacuation orders, which Hawkins said would remain in place.

Displaced residents were worried and wondering about the status of their homes, as smoke spread broadly across the area.

"It's stressful, you always wonder if your house is going to be there or not," said resident Mike Galusha.

Aerial video showed numerous homes being swallowed by flames, including homes with vehicles still in the carport and driveway, pictured below. Some residents rushed out, leaving animals behind. At least 15 structures were destroyed, but it was not clear how many were homes.


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One resident was severely burned from "head to toe."

"The civilian -- very, very tragically -- was very badly burned," Hawkins said.

The resident suffered full-thickness burns over the entire body and was taken to a hospital burn center, he said.

Raw Video: Silver Fire Burns Overnight

At an afternoon news conference, Sen. Barbara Boxer emphasized the growth of wildfires this year in California, in part blaming climate change.

"Open your eyes, breathe the air and see what’s going on," she said, addressing climate-change deniers.

She said the smoke at her home in Riverside County’s Rancho Mirage was “so thick” that she thought there was a fire in community.

Boxer also warned that federal spending cuts would mean fewer firefighters, saying that sequester-induced spending reductions would be “disastrous.”

The fast-growing blaze is in the same treacherous area as the 2006 Esperanza Fire, a wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters, adding to the worries of those battling the flames.

Hawkins called the Silver Fire a "180-degree mirror image of Esparanza Fire."

Six air tankers,13 helicopters, 1,000 firefighters and 84 engine companies were aiding in the firefight as of Thursday morning.

The fire was first reported in the area of Poppet Flats Road and Highway 243 (map), which was closed to traffic between Banning and Azalea Trail, according to the Riverside County Fire Department.

Evacuation orders remain in effect for Vista Grande, Mt. Edna, Poppet Flats, Twin Pines and Silent Valley. Evacuation centers were established at Hemet High School, 41701 East Stetson Ave. in Hemet and Beaumont High School, 39139 Cherry Valley Blvd., in Beaumont.

Just before 1 p.m., a warning evacuation notice was issued by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department for the lower Cabazon area from Elm east to Snow Creek.

By 4 p.m., mandatory evacuations were ordered for the community of Snow Creek. Residents are being told to use Highway 111 to the north to leave.

An animal evacuation center was established at the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus, 581 South Grand Ave. in San Jacinto.

Boulder Basin and Black Mountain Campgrounds on Black Mountain Road have been closed through August 15th.  

"The biggest challenge for us is the people who are in their homes, and when we try to evacuate them, them moving on the same streets as the fire engines," Cal Fire Capt. Lucas Spelman said.

Highway 243 south of Banning is closed.

In addition to the Silver Fire, the 1,400-acre Falls Fire continued to burn Wednesday about 5 miles west of Lake Elsinore.

Residents in the following areas were told to avoid unnecessary outdoor activities: Lake Elsinore, Perris Valley, Hemet/San Jacinto Valley, Banning Pass, Coachella Valley and Temecula Valley.

Anywhere that residents can see or smell smoke from the wildfires was also included in the warning, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

An NBC4 viewer in Palm Springs -- 25 miles away from the Silver Fire -- said remnants of the fire were present in the resort town.

"The smoke is so thick here in Palm springs, the ashes are coming down like snow, and the air quality is really bad!!" Michelle Renee Robinson-Scruggs wrote Wednesday on NBC4's Facebook page.

The Silver Fire broke out in an area about 20 miles north-northwest of the origin of the Mountain Fire, which burned 43 square miles last month. In that blaze, which prompted the evacuation of thousands of area residents, fire officials had warned of extremely flammable fuels due in part to a dry winter.

The Silver Fire had scorched more than 300 acres within its first hour, according to the fire department’s online incident report. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

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