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Silver fire burns 27 square miles; state of emergency declared

August 10, 2013|By Christine Mai-Duc

The Silver fire in Riverside County has burned 27 square miles over the last three days, but officials say firefighters are beginning to get the upper hand.

The fire was about 40% contained according to the latest Cal Fire report Friday night. It has burned 18,000 acres, destroyed 26 homes and injured six people, including five firefighters in the dry, rugged hills south of Banning.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday declared a state of emergency in Riverside County so that victims of the Silver fire can be eligible for federal disaster aid.

Residents and RV campers have been cleared to return to most of the evacuated areas. California 243 remains closed from Poppet Flats Road to Wesley Street. 

The governor's emergency declaration is required for fire victims to receive assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Firefighters used retardant-dropping planes to suppress the blaze, which started Wednesday afternoon. The cause is under investigation.

Friday brought a "significant decrease in fire activity," but officials remained cautious of fast-changing weather patterns that could push the fire south into thick forest land, said Eric Solomon of the U.S. Forest Service, a spokesman for agencies handling the fire.

Firefighters will have to contend with a warming trend beginning Saturday, continued low humidity and a decrease in winds out of the west that could prove problematic, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brandt Maxwell.

That decrease could allow the fire to begin burning up the north slope of the San Jacinto Mountains toward the forest.

"It's a possibility but not necessarily a certainty," Maxwell said.

In one hopeful sign, most of the 1,000 or so residents who were evacuated were allowed to return to their homes Friday night.

Martha Schenk and her husband arrived at the command post early in the day, hoping to get behind fire lines and survey the destruction around their Twin Pines home, which had burned down two days earlier. Her husband, who did not want his name used, was determined to rebuild, but Schenk said she wasn't so sure.

"We've [evacuated] so many times," she said. "I don't know if I want to do it again."

She and her family loved their home of nearly 20 years. The open space, stunning quiet and brilliant stars were all perks of their semirural life.

But there are rattlesnakes — her daughter was bitten once — and coyotes, which have claimed 10 of their cats. Fire threats are a constant worry.

"It's a commitment to live here," said Schenk, who like her husband was wearing the same clothes she had the previous day.

The couple had experienced the Esperanza fire in 2006, the flames marching up to their front door. The Silver fire spread much faster, and there was less warning.

"There is no guarantee you'll get out safe, and for some reason I didn't know that until this time," Schenk said.

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