Mountain fire in Southern California forces 6,000 to flee

LOS ANGELES, July 18 Thu Jul 18, 2013 5:13pm EDT

LOS ANGELES, July 18 (Reuters) - A wildfire that chased some 6,000 people from homes, vacation cabins and campgrounds in the mountains of Southern California roared through dry brush and timber for a fourth day on Thursday as crews battled to keep flames away from popular resort areas.

The blaze erupted on Monday afternoon about 100 miles (161 km) east of Los Angeles in the scenic but rugged San Jacinto Mountains overlooking Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and several smaller low-lying desert towns.

No injuries have been reported, but authorities say seven mountain residences, including three mobile homes, have been destroyed, along with five commercial structures, about a dozen outbuildings and several vehicles.

Authorities on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of the mile-high resort area of Idyllwild, along with the adjacent village of Fern Valley and all the parks and campgrounds in the vicinity as the blaze burned largely unchecked.

Several smaller communities in the area had already been evacuated during the first three days of the fire.

The latest evacuation notices brought to roughly 6,000 the total number of residents, vacationers and campers displaced by the so-called Mountain Fire, said Steve Gut, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Gut said the blaze was moving in different directions but that flames were still several miles from the outskirts of Idyllwild, a popular mountain getaway known for its hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding and music scene.

Fire incident commander Jeanne Pincha-Telley told a news conference in Idyllwild that one flank of the blaze had reached to within 2 miles of the extreme southern edge of Palm Springs at the foot of the mountain. Palm Springs itself was not under evacuation.

Pincha-Telley said the towering column of smoke and cinders pouring skyward from the blaze might complicate efforts to contain the flames as hot embers carried aloft could ignite new spot fires in the area.

In the next two days, she said, that column is "predicted to go right over the top of this town."

By early Thursday, the fire had charred some 2,800 acres (1,133 hectares) of drought-parched chaparral and timber, much of it in steep, remote wilderness terrain inside the San Bernardino National Forest.

That was more than three times the acreage reported burned two days earlier.

With nearly 3,000 firefighters, 17 water-dropping helicopters and 10 air tankers assigned to it, the blaze ranked as one of the most severe of more than a dozen large wildfires that crews were battling to contain in several western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.

Experts say this year could see one of the worst U.S. fire seasons on record. In recent weeks, a Colorado wildfire ranked as that state's most destructive on record ravaged more than 500 homes and killed two people. In Arizona, 19 members of an elite "hotshots" crew died while battling a separate fire on June 30.

In California, as of Thursday morning, firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around 15 percent of the Mountain Fire's perimeter. The cause of the blaze remained under investigation, authorities said. (Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson)