More than 6,000 people were forced to evacuate the southern California town of Idyllwild when a wind-whipped wildfire changed direction, officials said Thursday.
Residents and tourists were ordered to leave some 2,200 homes and 4,100 premises including hotels, condominiums and cabins as the so-called "Mountain Fire" continued to rage through 22,800 acres in the San Jacinto Mountains. They were taken to three nearby high schools.
"It's grown into a monster that we haven't seen before," San Jacinto Valley resident Ralph Savory told NBC Los Angeles. "We're waiting for the word. Got our cars packed. All we got left is us and our dogs."
By Thursday afternoon, the blaze was just a few miles from Idyllwald and Palm Springs, but officials said firefighters have so far been successful protecting populated areas from the fire.
“It’s scary. I thought they had it under control,” Roccio Gutierrez told the Riverside Press Enterprise, as she prepared to leave with her two daughters.
Forest Service spokeswoman Melody Lardner said winds that had been pushing the 30-square mile blaze towards the wilderness had changed direction, forcing evacuations in the town Wednesday afternoon.
“Yesterday it was pushing away from the communities,” Lardner said. “But later in the afternoon the winds moved North Westwards towards to the Idyllwild, so they called for an evacuation. It moved a little earlier than expected.”
She added: “We have three centers down the mountain at three different high schools. Some of the people evacuated were kids at various camps, so not everybody is a resident up there.”
Seven homes were destroyed or damaged by the fire soon after it broke out Monday, along with 11 outbuildings and around four to six vehicles, inciweb.org reported.
The wildfire, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, has destroyed camp grounds and hiking trails. That includes about 30 miles of the Pacific Coast Trial that runs from Mexico to the Canadian border, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association website.
But despite the fire being only 15 per cent contained, the 2,985 firefighters tackling the blaze had so far managed to prevent further damage.
They were joined by 228 fire engines, 17 helicopters, 10 fixed-wing aircraft, 51 hand crews, 21 water-tenders and 15 bulldozers.
The price tag to battle the flames has totaled $5.5 million so far, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“With the heavy fuels we’ve got and the temperatures we’re experiencing, it’s making it a very aggressive, hot fire right now," California Fire spokesman Scott Visyak told NBC Los Angeles on Tuesday. “The fire had just gone through there very aggressively.”
Heavy smoke has made the local air unhealthy, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Ash from the fire is falling in portions of the Coachella Valley, it said in a smoke advisory, Wednesday.
Lardner said the winds had lightened but the flames continued to spread through timber and chaparral - or shrubland - that have been left highly flammable by the dry winter,
She added that a night-flying, water-dropping helicopter and a fix-wing spotter plane were working on the fire overnight.
The cause of the blaze was also still unknown, she said.
Like many Idyllwild residents, Barb Lundquist slept in her car after the evacuation.
"I didn't think it was going to happen,” she told NBC Los Angeles. “I didn't think they were going to evacuate us."
She has spent 30 years her Southern California home that is now threatened by the wildfire.
“I’m exhausted,” she said.
First published July 18 2013, 5:28 PM