Silver Fire: Wildfire grows to 11,000 acres; 10 percent contained (photos, map)

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KPCC is reporting on the fast-burning wildfire near Banning in Riverside County, which has scorched about 11,000 acres and forced the evacuations of hundreds of people. At least four firefighters have been injured, and one civilian was severely burned. The Boulder Basin and Black Mountain campgrounds have been closed and Black Mountain added to the list of evacuations for the area, which remain in effect. Check back frequently for updates.

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Update 5:30 p.m.: Mountain residents weigh living under regular threat of fire

Some residents affected by the fast-moving fire burning near Banning are choosing not to leave their homes during the Silver Fire, which has burned 11,000 acres. There are now mandatory evacuations for the areas of Vista Grande, Mt. Edna, Poppet Flats, Twin Pines and Silent Valley. 

"We're just hunkered down now," a Poppet Flats resident, who declined to be named because she is disobeying the evacuation order, told KPCC's Wendy Lee. 

The resident said the fire has already passed over her house, and she doesn't feel she is in danger. She added that several of her neighbors are also choosing to stay put. She's been in contact with them via hand-held radio. 

Even though the area is vulnerable to fires, the resident said she likes the "peace and security living there." 

"It's fairly quiet," she said.

Nearby, in a small clutch of homes called Twin Pines, Dave Clark was watering the area around his livestock Thursday afternoon. A small barn, the only part of his property left standing after the Silver Fire swept through the area Wednesday afternoon.

His home, garage and a large machine shop were completely destroyed in the blaze. He makes off-road vehicles for events in Baja California for a living.

Clark told KPCC's Grant Slater his home was insured but he won't rebuild up here in the mountains. "Too many fires," he says. "It seems like there's one every week."

—KPCC Staff

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Update 4:40: Area businesses coping despite the smoke and threat

Businesses in the fire-affected areas surrounding the Falls and Silver fires raging near Banning in Riverside County. So far, six have reported being threatened by the Silver Fire, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

An RV resort, Silent Valley RV Club, in Banning lost a barn Wednesday and was forced to evacuate at least 500 people, according to the Press- Enterprise.

Outside the fire perimeter, several businesses said the fire had little impact on their sales.

"It's bright blue skies out here," Caroline Thalasinos, property manager of Cabazon Outlets in Cabazon, just outside of the fire range, told KPCC's Wendy Lee. "We don't have any smoke smells." 

Thalasinos said the smoky air has been particularly bad in the Palm Springs area. Some of those residents, she said, are coming to shop at the outlets to take a breather.

"It looks like you're driving into a large smoke cloud if you're coming in from the Palm Springs area," Thalasinos said.

Suzanna Ronquillo, office manager for the Banning Chamber of Commerce, told KPCC businesses in the area are used to dealing with fires. 

"It's business as usual," Ronquillo said. "This area, we're so impacted by fires every summer, so this is something we've all grown accustomed to."

— Wendy Lee, KPCC

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Update 3:49 p.m.: Fire now at 11,000 acres, 10 percent contained; U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks

The Silver Fire has grown to 11,000 acres and remains only about 10 percent contained as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Riverside County Fire Department's website.

Four firefighters and one civilian have been injured, with 15 structures destroyed as of Wednesday night, with 500 structures threatened, Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins said at a press conference attended by KPCC reporter Hayley Fox Thursday afternoon at the fire's command center near Banning. The fire has progressed nine miles from where it started, Hawkins said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer also spoke at the press conference to draw attention to the effects the sequester will have on fighting fires.

MAP, FIRE STATS, AND MORE: Full details at KPCC's Fire Tracker

"We know from the Forest Service directly there will be 500 fewer firefighters hired this coming year," Boxer said. "And that coming year starts Oct. 1. And there will be fewer fire engines put out here, so it's going to have an impact, at the worst possible time."

But Riverside County Fire Chief Hawkins said that he was still free to make necessary decisions to battle the Silver Fire. "I can assure you, there are no bounds being placed on me as a Riverside County fire chief in holding back the deployment of any resources," Hawkins said. "We are committed to act quickly putting this fire to bed."

Evacuations have been ordered, but there weren't many evacuees Thursday at the official evacuation centers, Red Cross spokeswoman Georgia Duncan told KPCC producer Bianca Ramirez.

Kathy Kennedy, one of the owners of Gramma's Country Kitchen in Banning, said many of the folks who've been evacuated are stopping by her restaurant to grab a bite to eat — and calm their nerves a bit. 

"The hotel next door is booked. And it's just smoky. I mean ... we're not strangers to fires," Kennedy told KPCC producer Bianca Ramirez. "[But] there's the high school, evacuations, and the people up here are helping the people out there."

A couple of her regular customers who live in the path of the Silver Fire have lost their homes already, Kennedy said.

A Twin Pines man who managed to save his home from the fire with a fire hose while surrounded spoke about it with the Riverside Press-Enterprise:

Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for Poppet Flats, Silent Valley, Twin Pines Ranch, Vista Grande, Mount Edna and portions of Cabazon. Another evacuation was ordered for Snow Creek Village, and two campgrounds off of Black Mountain Road were being evacuated due to imminent threat, Chief Hawkins said.

Duncan reminds folks who live near the fire area to take evacuation orders seriously when authorities issue them.

"If it appears you may be asked to evacuate, start getting some of your personal and precious stuff together so you can take it with you," Duncan said.

"We always have to error on the side of being most conservative of public protection," said Chief Hawkins.

Duncan said that few have gone to the evacuation centers to seek shelter — instead, many have opted to stay closer to their homes.

There were no injured people at the evacuation centers, Duncan said.

— Bianca Ramirez, Hayley Fox, Mike Roe, KPCC

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Update 2:04 p.m.: Evacuation warning for Snow Creek as fire heads east

Fire officials tell KPCC that the Silver Fire that has already burned homes and forced evacuations near Banning in Riverside County continued to move east Thursday afternoon, threatening homes in Snow Creek and the eastern side of the Cabazon Peak area.

The fire — which has injured four firefighters and  one civilian — has burned about 10,000 acres and was only 10 percent contained as of Thursday afternoon.

Calfire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson said the fire had forced an evacuation warning in the Snow Creek community.

"It's still continuting to move with the winds we're having towards the east," Hutchinson said. "It's gotten around Cabazon Peak and is now pushing itself further to the east into the desert."

Evacuations were stilli in place for Vista Grande, Mt. Edna, Poppet Flats, Twin Pines and Silent Valley. 

Four firefighters and one civilian had been injured in the blaze as of Thursday afternoon. 

"It's dangerous out there," Hutchinson said. "Very steep, rocky terrain. It's much hotter today. There are just things are going to happen. The firefighters are working hard. they're in a lot of smoke and they're doing their best to make sure they can get in there to protect homes and property and people."

Firefighters are concentrating on putting in perimeter lines and working on attacking the head of the fire as it edged toward Snow Creek.

— Hayley Fox, KPCC

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Updated 1:24 p.m.: More evacuations called for; FEMA helping pay to fight Silver Fire; region has history of wildfires

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department issued a warning Thursday afternoon adding to already-existing Silver Fire evacuations, calling for those in the lower Cabazon area to evacuate.

The cost of battling the fast-growing wildfire near Banning in Riverside County will be mostly paid for by federal funds.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said it will reimburse the state of California for up to 75 percent of its firefighting costs related to the fire. FEMA said the fire was threatening homes, as well as six businesses and local power lines. 

While the Silver Fire is threatening homes and businesses, that's to be expected in an area full of plants that can easily catch on fire in dry weather, experts said. 

There were at least two previous fires that have areas that overlap with the Silver Fire, said Richard Minnich, a UC Riverside professor, who specializes in fire ecology. One was the 1974 Soboba fire, which was around Twin Pines in the upper elevation toward the San Jacinto Mountains, Minnich said.

The other was the 2006 Esperanza Fire near Cabazon. Five firefighters were killed in that fire and more than 40,000 acres were burned in the fire.

Minnich said when fire fighters are battling fires and trying to save homes, their number one priority is their personal safety. 

"If they view that a situation where a home is in an area that is so inaccessible or only one way out or there is no escape route, they are going to declare it indefensible space," he said.

Wendy Lee with KPCC staff

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Updated 10:41 a.m.: More evacuations; 10 percent containment

Boulder Basin and Black Mountain campgrounds have been closed and Black Mountain evacuated as firefighters continue their attack on the 10,000-acre wildfire near Banning in Riverside County.

The fire was only 10 percent contained as of late Thursday morning, according to Riverside County fire officials.

The raging Silver fire has been fueled by dry weather and areas of flammable grass, producing a vicious combination.

The grasses "can explode on you every summer, every dry season. It's dangerous," said Richard Minnich, a UC Riverside professor, who specializes in fire ecology. "It's a lake of gasoline."

REPORT: California wildfires getting worse due to climate change

Minnich said the grasses, which originated in Europe, took off in Southern California around the 1900s and are highly flammable in dry weather. Part of the problem is that when the grasses were brought to the area, there was a lack of biological enemies or organisms that could reduce its growth, he said.

That has made that area especially vulnerable to fires, he said. 

"People expect to be living in a lake of gasoline and expect protection from the fire department, which is unrealistic," Minnich said.

Evacuations remain in effect for several mountain communities and more than 1,000 people have been displaced so far. 

Kristi Smith says she and her boyfriend, Robert Silver Thunder, didn't have time to fetch any of their belongings last night before they lost their home to the fire in Twin Pines.

"The clothes and the laptop — you know, I'm not too worried about that, but I'm more concerned about my regalia, which is my American-Indian dress attire, which is a lot of time and patience to put those things together, like beadwork and eagle feathers. It's demolished," Smith said.

Silver Thunder, a graphic designer, lost his computer and other business material to the fire. He says he's staying with family in Pico Rivera for now, but plans to move back. 

"I know it sounds ridiculous moving back again up (on) the mountain, but chances of living up there, it's like, OK, you may have fire every, what, six months, but that's something that you have to understand and live through it," he said.

Evacuation Centers:

  • Hemet High School 41701 East Stetson Avenue Hemet, CA
  • Beaumont High School 39139 Cherry Valley Boulevard Beaumont, CA

Animal Evacuation:

  • San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus 581 South Grand Avenue San Jacinto, CA  

— Wendy Lee and Ashley Bailey

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Updated 8:46 a.m.: Civilian burned "head to toe"

The civilian injured in the fast-burning wildfire near Banning in Riverside County was severely burned from "head to toe," NBC reports:

"The civilian — very, very tragically — was very badly burned," said Cal Fire Riverside Chief John R. Hawkins.

The resident suffered full-thickness burns over the entire body and was taken to a hospital burn center, he said.

— KPCC staff

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Updated 7:41 a.m.: Fire expands to 10,000 acres

Fire officials now estimate the fire has consumed 10,000 acres with zero containment.

All evacuation orders are still in place for Poppet Flats, Silent Valley, Twin Pines, Twin Pines Ranch, Vista Grande, Mt. Edna and the south end of Cabazon, according to the Riverside County Fire Department.

MAP, FIRE STATS, AND MORE: Full details at KPCC's Fire Tracker

— KPCC staff

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5:55 a.m.: A wildfire that broke out in the inland mountains south of Banning in Riverside County has expanded, burning homes, forcing the evacuation of several small mountain communities and leaving three people injured.

About 1,500 people had evacuated as the wildfire of more than 9 square miles raged out of control Thursday in the San Jacinto Mountains near Banning, said Lucas Spelman, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Three were injured, including two firefighters taken to hospitals by ambulance and a burned civilian who was airlifted out, state fire officials said. They would give no further details on the injuries.

CalFire spokeswoman Julie Hutchinson said the fire is still officially at 6,000 acres but that's expected to increase after a Thursday morning mapping flight.

Fire officials said about a dozen structures were damaged or destroyed, but could not say how many were homes. Footage from TV news helicopters and photos from the scene showed several houses in flames.

RELATED: See photos from our media partner NBC4

They include the Twin Pines home of Dave Clark, whose parents were killed in a house fire in Riverside in April 2012, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported. Prosecutors alleged Clark's sister Deborah Clark set the fire, and she was awaiting a mental-competency hearing to see if she was competent to stand trial for her parents' murder in a case that has received extensive local media coverage.

A photograph taken by the Desert Sun newspaper showed Clark talking on his cellphone with the home fully engulfed in flames behind him.

"He said he lost everything, he couldn't talk," brother Jeff Clark told the Press-Enterprise.

About 800 people evacuated the Silent Valley Club, a private RV resort, state fire spokesman Lucas Spelman said.

About 700 more were under evacuation order in the rural communities of Poppet Flats, Twin Pines, Edna Valley and Vista Grande, and evacuation centers were set up at high schools in Hemet and Banning. The communities are in the San Jacinto Mountains along Interstate 10 some 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

Margaret Runnels of Poppet Flats was at work when her house came under an evacuation order. She was in Banning waiting for her husband to collect pets and valuables from their house.

"I was hoping they would let me back up to get some personal items I knew my husband would forget like a jewelry box and stuff that means stuff," a crying Runnels told the Desert Sun. "You always tell yourself to prepare everything but you never take the stupid time to do it."

More than 500 firefighters, helped by five helicopters and five air tankers, were working to protect homes and get ahead of the flames. All but three helicopters were grounded after night fall but were expected to return to the air Thursday morning.

— Associated Press

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which county Banning is in.

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