Update 2:56 p.m.: Residents advised to evacuate from 700 homes
Residents of another 700 homes were advised to retreat to safety on Friday as crews fighting a wildfire in the mountains above Palm Springs grew increasingly concerned about the possibility of unstable weather and erratic winds.
The voluntary departures by people in Pine Cove, on the fire'swestern flank, came in addition to mandatory evacuations involving 6,000 others who spent a third day away from home as the firespread in three directions.
The blaze in the San Jacinto Mountains has expanded to roughly 39 square miles and was 15 percent contained, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kate Kramer said.
Some communities on the eastern edge of the fire were reopened to residents, but about 4,100 homes remained under potential threat.
STATS, CLOSURES, EVACUATIONS: Full details on KPCC's Fire Tracker
The fire was only about two miles from Idyllwild on its western flank and the same from Palm Springs, below on the desert floor. However, it was burning relatively slowly with the most active area south of town.
An enormous plume of smoke could be seen from Palm Springs.
A storm front headed toward the region could provide some relief with cooler weather and a chance of rain — but it might make the situation much more volatile, fire spokesman Capt. Mike Lindbery said.
Combined with hot air on the ground, the unstable air could create a strong updraft that draws smoke high into the atmosphere.
If the smoke column rises too high, moisture at the top could freeze and the weight of the ice could cause the column to collapse, creating a powerful downdraft in all directions, Lindbery said.
Last updated July 19, 2013 at 2:24 p.m. | Source: USGS
"We're very concerned because this is the condition in the past that has definitely caused big firestorms and the death of citizens and firefighters," he said.
"It makes it so there are not a lot of places that are safe."
Popular campgrounds, hiking trails and a 30-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican border to Canada, remained closed. A small stretch of a local highway was also closed.
Some 3,300 firefighters, aided by nearly 30 aircraft, battled the fire, which stretched from 4,000 feet to 9,000 feet along the mountains. As a result, crews could be working in temperatures ranging from a comfortable 75 to a scorching 110 degrees.
The arriving storm front could bring a 20 percent chance of rain and 15-24 mph winds with gusts to 40 mph that could push the flames in erratic ways.
KPCC's Ben Bergman reports Friday that the Mountain Fire is mostly bad news for businesses around the evacuation zone, though some people are trying to make the most of the situation. The small mountain town of Idyllwild would normally be busting with summer tourists at this time of year — Now it’s a ghost town.
That’s bad news for motels like the Strawberry Creek Bunkhouse. Bergman met owner Ian Scott at a checkpoint. He was trying to get back to check on his property, where he’s now letting firefighters stay.
"I just need to get in to make sure that they have all the supplies, clean some rooms, and then I have 25 chickens I need to move," said Scott.
A sheriff’s deputy let Scott through. He evacuated on Wednesday. He told KPCC he’s losing thousands of dollars a day having his motel closed.
"You know it’s going to be hard bouncing back, but you you hope there’s no loss of life or life of property," said Scott.
The nearby community of Pine Cove – home to about 1000 people — was under volunteer evacuation orders on Friday afternoon. Lots of residents have been coming to the community's only’s grocery store to stock up on essentials, especially after a midday reverse 9-1-1 call went out.
"We’ve been busy from locals that are getting milk and stuff like that," Michael Berriman, who manages the Pine Cove Market, told KPCC.
Berriman says he's not going anywhere until Pine Cove is under mandatory evacuation orders. (On Friday afternoon the fire was about five miles from the area.)
"I will stay open as long as I can for the people that are going to be headed off the hill," said Berriman. Those heading off the hill drove by a roadside stand selling freshly printed "Mountain Fire 2013" T-shirts.
They’re going for $20 dollars each.
Idyllwild resident Dave Jones was back in his Southern California home on Thursday, a day after evacuating, but remained ready to leave.
The walls were bare in the home where he's lived for the past 40 years after the 64-year-old and his wife stowed the valuable mementos, along with more practical items, like clothes, jewelry, medicines and the computer hard drive before heading to their son's home in nearby Hemet.
"The fire came right up by the ridge yesterday afternoon, gave everybody a pretty good scare that it was going to come down the hill," Jones said Thursday night.
The last time he evacuated for a fire it was 1997, and he stayed away for four days. Jones said he considered the order he got Wednesday "a light evacuation" and wasn't afraid because he knows of a controlled dirt road to use as "an escape route" if fire does come down that ridge.
Update 12:44 p.m.: Evacuation warning for Pine Cove; Agua Caliente tribal land burned
The Riverside County Sheriff's Department issued an evacuation warning for the Pine Cove area late Friday morning.
Community members who feel threatened were advised to leave, but a mandatory evacuation order had yet been issued.
The fire in the San Jacinto Mountains had grown to around 24,818 acres, roughly a quarter of that on the reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, according to an estimate from tribal officials.
In a release early Friday, the tribe noted it has calculated through GIS mapping that more than 6,000 acres of the scorched land is on its reservation.
"We have been actively involved with the agencies working to minimize impact and to help protect one of our most culturally rich and historically important areas," Tribal Chairman Jeff Grubbe said. "We have been fortunate to this point because the thousands of acres of reservation land burned are located deep in the mountains without severe threat to culturally sensitive areas or human lives. We are all deeply saddened by both those who have been displaced by this unfortunate event and those who have lost homes and property."
PREVIOUSLY: A wildfire that destroyed seven homes and cabins in the mountains above Palm Springs grew overnight and continued to threaten the town of Idyllwild Friday as crews kept an eye on an advancing thunderstorm.
The fire in the San Jacinto Mountains grew to around 24,818 acres — roughly 39 square miles — and was 15 percent contained, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kate Kramer said.
About 6,000 people remained evacuated for a third day as the fire spread in three directions amid the rugged, timbered ridges. Some communities on the eastern edge of the fire were reopened to residents, but about 4,100 homes remained under potential threat.
The fire was only about two miles from Idyllwild on its western flank and the same from Palm Springs, down below on the desert floor. However, it was burning relatively slowly with the most active area south of town.
An enormous plume of smoke could be seen from Palm Springs.
Popular campgrounds, hiking trails and a 30-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican border to Canada, remained closed.
Some 30 aircraft were supporting ground crews, including two military aircraft — C-130 jets — that were dropping 3,000 gallons of water at a time. More than 3,300 firefighters were doing what they could to get a line around the fire, which stretched from 4,000 feet to 9,000 feet along the mountains. For that reason, crews could be working in temperatures ranging from a comfortable 75 to a scorching 110 degrees.
Kramer said a storm front was heading toward the region, bringing a 20 percent chance of rain but also 15-24 mph winds with gusts to 40 mph that could push the flames in erratic ways.
"That's the double-edged sword of having a front move in," she said. "It can cause some very unpredictable weather."
The fire, which began Monday afternoon, has burned six homes and mobile homes, one cabin, and more than a dozen other buildings. One home also was damaged.
Authorities said the fire was "human-caused" but they wouldn't say whether it was accidental or intentional. There have been no reports of any injuries.
The fire was about 12 miles from the site of the 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and destroyed 34 homes and burned an area that hadn't burned in many years.
This story has been updated.