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'Head to toe' burn victim among five hurt as California wildfire spreads

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A Southern California wildfire that has left a person with head-to-toe burns and five firefighters hurt swelled Thursday to 14,000 acres and was described by authorities as 20 percent contained.

About 1,500 people fled Wednesday when the fire erupted in the hills of Riverside County, west of Palm Springs, as aerial video from NBC Los Angeles showed homes bursting into flames. Winds as strong as 40 mph pushed the fire, which Cal Fire classified as “burning uncontrolled.”

On Thursday, fire officials said the blaze had destroyed 27 structures, 26 of them homes. Cal Fire’s Jodi Hagemann said assessment crews were investigating, but would not be able to determine a total number of structures lost until Friday or later. 

The fire — known as the Silver Fire — more than doubled in acreage on Thursday.

More coverage from NBCLosAngeles.com

The person who was burned head to toe was at a hospital burn center. Cal Fire Riverside Chief John R. Hawkins told the NBC station that the person “very, very tragically was very badly burned.”

At least one of the firefighters suffered smoke inhalation and was taken to the hospital, Cal Fire’s Daniel Berlant said.

Firefighters fight flames as the Silver Fire spreads to the foothills in Cabazon, Calif. A wind-whipped California wildfire that doubled in size overnight torched 15 buildings east of Los Angeles, injured at least five people and forced the evacuation of 500 homes in about half a dozen small communities, authorities said on Thursday. Jason Redmond, Reuters

Cal Fire said that evacuation orders had been issued for the communities of Black Mountain, Vista Grande, Mount Edna, Poppet Flats, Twin Pines and Silent Valley, along with Snow Creek village and parts of Cabazon.

Cal Fire Riverside Chief John R. Hawkins said Thursday that 500 structures had been threatened by the blaze.

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

A map produced by Cal Fire showed several other wildfires in the state — including in Riverside County, in the Sierra National Forest, in the Stanislaus National Forest and in the Klamath National Forest.

A new fire erupted Thursday afternoon near Wrightwood, northwest of San Bernardino, and quickly grew to 60 acres, forcing the mandatory evacuation of 75 homes.

The West has already suffered a series of destructive wildfires in 2013. Colorado experienced the most destructive wildfire in its history in June, which killed two and destroyed about 500 structures. As that fire burned, 11 other fires plagued the state and more threatened other parts of the Southwest.

The following month, 19 heavily trained Hotshot firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona.

During a news conference Thursday on the Silver Fire, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., partially blamed climate change for the increase of wildfires in California. "Open your eyes, breathe the air and see what’s going on," she said.

Cal Fire said about 1,000 firefighters were on the scene, up from 450. Eighty-four fire engines, six air tankers and 13 helicopters were fighting the blaze.

The American Red Cross opened three evacuation centers.

Ashes from the fire were reported to be falling in Palm Springs, 25 miles away.

"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 on NBC LA’s Facebook page.

According to NBC LA, steady winds forecast throughout Thursday were a challenge for firefighters. "Hopefully, as we progress through the day we'll be able to gain some ground," said Riverside County Fire Department Volunteer Manager Jeff LaRusso.

NBC News' Miguel Almaguer and Ian Johnston contributed to this report.

A pickup truck is engulfed in flames as the Silver Fire roars through a residential area near Hwy 243 and Twin Pines Road between Banning and Idyllwild, Calif. on Wednesday. Frank Bellino / Press-Enterprise via AP