Fire crews tighten grip on California blaze as property toll grows
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Firefighters tightened their grip around a wind-driven blaze roaring for a third day through dry brush east of Los Angeles, even as property losses climbed on Friday to more than two dozen homes while hundreds more remained threatened.
The so-called Silver Fire erupted on Wednesday south of the Riverside County town of Banning and by early Friday had charred some 16,000 acres on the rugged northern and eastern slopes of Jan Jacinto Mountain, authorities said.
Four firefighters suffered minor injuries, and a civilian was severely burned in the blaze, which was raging through tinder-dry scrub land and grass about 85 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, officials said.
By Friday morning, a firefighting force of more than 1,600 personnel, backed by a squadron of water-dropping helicopters and a team of bulldozers, had managed to carve fire breaks around 25 percent of the blaze's perimeter, up from 10 percent a day earlier.
"We're definitely making very good progress," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlandt said.
The blaze, one of dozens burning across several western states, is the latest to unleash significant property losses during a U.S. summer fire season that experts predict could become one of the worst on record.
More than 500 homes in several communities remained under mandatory evacuation orders, including portions of Cabazon, a town of 2,500 residents about 20 miles west of the desert resort of Palm Springs.
Several campgrounds in the area have also been closed, and shelters for evacuees were been set up at high schools in nearby Hemet and Beaumont. The cause of the fire remained under investigation.
Some residents within the evacuation zone were initially advised to stay put in their homes as approaching flames cut them off from a safe escape route on Wednesday, but those evacuees were later moved out of harm's way, Berlandt said.
The toll of documented property damage from the fire was revised upward on Friday, from 15 structures lost to 26 homes and a commercial building destroyed, county fire officials said. Two other homes were listed as damaged.
But firefighters have saved far more homes than were lost.
"Hundreds of homes ... are still standing because of the aggressive efforts of those firefighters," Berlandt said, adding that the majority of dwellings threatened by the blaze have so far been protected.
The Silver Fire was burning on the opposite side of San Jacinto Mountain from where an earlier fire threatened the resort town of Idyllwild last month, destroying several homes and forcing the evacuation of about 6,000 residents, tourists and business owners.
Earlier this year, a Colorado wildfire that ranked as that state's most destructive on record ravaged nearly 500 homes and killed two people. In Arizona, 19 members of an elite firefighting crew died on June 30 while battling a wildfire.
(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)
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