Thursday , July 18, 2013 - 9:31 AM
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — A wildfire pushed toward Southern California mountain communities Wednesday night, forcing people to flee from thousands of homes and threatening thousands more.
The communities of Idyllwild, Fern Valley and smaller surrounding communities in the mountains southwest of Palm Springs were under evacuation orders affecting some 2,200 homes and 6,000 residents and visitors, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Jandrall.
People were being allowed home long enough to pick up essential items before evacuating as the flames crept over a peak just east of the towns, Jandrall said.
There were 4,100 residences threatened by the fire including homes, hotels, condominiums and cabins, Forest Service spokeswoman Melody Lardner said.
Winds that were moving the fire into wilderness were beginning to change direction, Lardner said.
“Yesterday it was pushing away from the communities,” Lardner said. “There’s a new front moving in that’s changing the direction of the winds. It moved in a little earlier than anticipated.”
Residents and visitors streamed down the two highways that led down the mountain toward the larger cities of Hemet and Banning.
Roccio Gutierrez quickly collected her two daughters and some clothes as she prepared to evacuate.
“It’s scary,” Gutierrez told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. “I thought they had it under control.”
Firefighters were going door-to-door to make sure residents were leaving Idyllwild as a huge plume of smoke loomed about a mile away, but some evacuees were optimistic.
“I don’t see the town burning down,” Elaine Moore, 73, who has lived on the mountain for more than 30 years, told the Press-Enterprise. “We’ve been through it before. We just have to keep chugging along.”
About 60 homes were already under evacuation orders and seven have been destroyed or damaged by the wildfire that broke out Monday.
Temperatures were in triple digits in the area and humidity in the single digits, said Tina Rose, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and similar conditions were forecast for the next two days.
Rose said the fire was showing extreme behavior in an area that hadn’t burned in many years.
“The slightest little spark is going to make a run and torch trees,” Rose said. “It’s just so bone dry.”
Idyllwild, known as a mountain vacation destination, also has many year-round residents and is popular with artists. Combined with the smaller surrounding communities of Pine Cove and Fern Valley, it’s home to nearly 4,000 people. About half of the area is under the evacuation order.
The blaze destroyed three houses, damaged another and destroyed three mobile homes, a cabin, a garage and about a half-dozen vehicles, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement Tuesday. Eleven outbuildings, five commercial buildings and several smaller structures also have been lost.
The wildfire started Monday between Palm Springs and Hemet, near the rural Riverside County community of Mountain Center, and grew to 30 square miles by Wednesday. It was burning in thick brush and trees at an elevation of 5,000 to 7,500 feet.
Nearly 3,000 firefighters and 25 aircraft had the blaze about 15 percent contained.
Camp Ronald McDonald, which hosts programs for children with cancer and their families, was also evacuated.
The fire was burning in the San Jacinto Mountains, about 12 miles from the site of the 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and destroyed 34 homes.
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