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Idyllwild evacuated as Mountain fire rages south of Palm Springs

Most residents leave Idyllwild as the Mountain fire roars in rugged terrain south of Palm Springs; six homes are lost in the early stages.

July 18, 2013|By Rick Rojas and Kurt Streeter
  • Sheriff's deputies keep watch in the mountain retreat of Idyllwild south of Palm Springs as the Mountain fire rages in the distance. Most residents left when an evacuation was ordered.
Sheriff's deputies keep watch in the mountain retreat of Idyllwild… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

IDYLLWILD — Firefighters were cautiously optimistic that this popular getaway town could be spared as crews battled a wildfire Thursday raging through forested slopes south of Palm Springs.

Working in searing conditions and aided by water-dropping aircraft, crews cleared paths and laid down red-colored fire retardant on the outskirts of Idyllwild and several nearby communities — an effort to contain the flames and keep them from residential areas.

"That's our primary goal," said Bob Poole, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, who noted the blaze came as close as 2 1/2 miles to Idyllwild. "But fire sometimes is unpredictable."

In all, about 3,000 firefighters have fought the flames, which torched 22,800 acres and was only 15% contained by Thursday afternoon.

Firefighters weren't helped by the weather. Daytime temperatures remained in the 90s and weren't expected to ease until Friday, when a cooling trend could begin.

Forecasts show rising chances of humidity and rain Friday, but also possible thunderstorms, which could start more fires.

"It's kind of good news, bad news," said National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Harrison.

The blaze began Monday afternoon just south of town and spread quickly, fueled by dry trees, chaparral and underbrush. Six homes were lost in the fire's early stages. No deaths have been attributed to the fire, but three firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

Investigators said they believed the fire was man-made but had not determined a precise cause.

On Thursday afternoon, charred rock formations and blackened trees were visible at some spots along the winding roads leading to Idyllwild. Plumes of smoke formed a gray canopy in the sky, darkening the San Jacinto Mountains and raining hot embers.

Residents of communities on the other side of the range, which include Palm Springs and the rest of the Coachella Valley, were keeping a close watch. While officials said the fire was not expected to crest the range and race north into the valley, the popular Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was closed.

Idyllwild, known for its low-key ambience and concentration of free spirits, artists and music lovers, was all but abandoned.

Roughly 6,000 people had been ordered to evacuate an area that includes about 2,200 homes. The evacuation was ordered, Poole said, because of fears the wind might shift and push the blaze into the secluded community.

"It's always a lot of heartache incurred in an evacuation," Poole said. "Human life always trumps everything else."

Many residents ended up at Red Cross shelters at public schools in nearby Anza and Hemet.

Idyllwild "is built around the fact we're vulnerable to a fire," said longtime resident Joanna Bruno, 58. She had evacuated to the Hemet High shelter with her two 15-year-old grandchildren.

Bruno and others spoke of their fondness for living in a sparsely developed mountain area where the urban crush of traffic gives way to chirping birds.

But she and others at the shelter said they know such seclusion puts them in a precarious position: They must keep a constant vigil for wildfires and be prepared to leave on short notice.

Once the fire began, Bruno said, she continuously tracked it, listening to a local emergency radio station.

When the call to leave came, her family was ready. They grabbed the packed bags on the kitchen table and left. "I got plan A, plan B and plan C, and plan B panned out," she said. "This is normal operating procedures."

Still, not everyone was willing to leave.

A few miles from the shelter, speaking over the phone from a mountain neighborhood that had received evacuation orders, Rick Chaney said he wasn't about to let fire disrupt his life — or let anyone tell him what to do.

"I don't feel threatened so I'm not leaving," said the 61-year-old proprietor of Chaney's Plumbing.

He said he was determined to continue his work, and he spent Thursday fixing a broken water line at a home near Idyllwild.

"Like most of the people around here, the people who lived in the house left due to the fire, but I came in to help," Chaney said. "I had a job to do. There was water leaking outside their house."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Rojas reported from Idyllwild and Streeter from Los Angeles.

Times staff writers Ari Bloomekatz and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

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