MOUNTAIN CENTER, Calif. - All evacuations for the Mountain Fire were lifted Sunday at 11 a.m. Residents of Idyllwild and Fern Valley are allowed to return to their homes and businesses.
Rain and higher humidity assisted the fire fighting efforts early Sunday morning, knocking down most of the flames. The fire is 68 percent contained and has burned 27,279 acres.
Flash flood warnings were issued for the Mountain Fire area Sunday at 1 p.m.
The overnight rain had already added slick mud, shifting winds and the dangers of lightning to the hazards facing firefighters.
``With the rain and the hard work that was done last night, the threat to Idyllwild is over,'' said fire command spokesman Rico Smith, of the Bureau of Land Management.
But the rain was a double-edged sword, with some firefighters ordered off ridges due to lightning danger, and burned mountainsides turning into slick mud fields by as much as 1-1/2 inches of rain overnight.
Storms moved out of the area by sunrise on Sunday, but Smith said ``we expect rain this afternoon and that could hinder firefighters efforts with lightning.
``We're taking advantage of the lull we have right now to put in more containment lines, particularly on the northeast flank towards the Palm Springs (Aerial) Tramway,"
``Once that ash gets wet," Smith continued, "It's pretty slick stuff.''
Containment lines roughly doubled from Saturday to Sunday afternoon.
A huge portion of the wooded mountains east of Idyllwild and southwest of Palm Springs has been lost to flames. But the popular forests at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, at about 8,500 feet above sea level, have mostly been saved.
Fire officials expect full control by Wednesday, July 24th.
Saturday afternoon, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department lifted the evacuation orders for Trails End, Morris Ranch, and Camp Joe Sherman as of 1:00 PM Saturday. Local residents and campers in these affected areas may repopulate.
Most of the evacuations were put in place Wednesday.
Congressman Raul Ruiz toured the fire ravaged areas near Idyllwild Saturday, one day after Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom issued an emergency proclamation for Riverside County, making the it eligible for state and federal assistance. Newsom is acting governor while Gov. Jerry Brown is out of the state.
Meanwhile, crews are working to build fire lines on a ridgetop east of Idyllwild, as the Mountain Fire looped around and threatened the small town from a different direction.
The latest numbers released by the United States Forest Service, map the fire 27,245 acres. They also say that the fire is now 49 percent contained and expect full containment by Friday July 26th. Fire officials say this was mostly because thunderstorms did not materialize as predicted and firefighters were able to make good progress on the fire.
National Forest spokesman John Miller said ``progress was made overnight along the northwest flank of the fire. Today, firefighters will concentrate efforts along the northern and northwestern flanks, and build on gains made on containment lines to protect the communities of Idyllwild and Pine Cove.''
The fire had originally burned east from its Monday ignition point at Mountain Center, south of Idyllwild, into high country and rugged canyons. By Friday, it was advancing to the north, towards Mount San Jacinto, Tahquitz Meadow and Long Valley -- popular hiking destinations from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
At sunrise today, the fire was advancing along two fronts: to the northwest, towards the small subdivisions along Route 243 north of Idyllwild, and to the northeast, through the wilderness towards the top of the tramway. Today's sunrise fire map showed the fire to be 6-8 miles distant from the tramway, however.
A ``monsoonal flow'' was poised to send hot winds from the Coachella Valley into the mountains today, firefighters said, and threatened to introduce erratic, gusty winds into the fire area, along with lightning strikes and possible rain.
Route 74 was reopened Friday for traffic between Palm Desert and Hemet or Temecula, but Route 243 remained closed from Route 74 through Idyllwild north to the Nature Center at Pine Cove. But the road was open for traffic from Banning south through Poppet Flats to the Nature Center.
An evacuation warning was issued Friday morning for the 770 residents of Pine Cove, advising everyone in the area to prepare for a possible evacuation order, authorities said. Idyllwild and Fern Valley remained under mandatory evacuation orders, with shelters established at high schools in Anza, Hemet and Beaumont.
Three firefighters suffered slight smoke inhalation injuries in the first hours of the fire, which has destroyed 23 structures, including seven residences, authorities said. An area of more than 6,000 acres of the fire-charred land is part of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians'reservation, according to the tribe.
A total of 3,478 firefighters, 260 engines, two DC-10s and eight other fixed-wing aircraft, 20 helicopters, 30 water tenders and 15 bulldozers were deployed in battling the blaze as of Friday night.
The Palm Springs Tramway remains closed due to smoke concerns, we also learned Saturday that firefighters are using the tram to shuttle crews to the upper station to clear areas around the tramway station in case flames begin to move in that direction.