Crews close in on full containment


Crews were close today to encircling a wildfire that has chewed through more than 27,000 acres of the San Bernardino National Forest since breaking out last week near Idyllwild, authorities said.

The U.S. Forest Service estimated the cost of fighting the fire at $22.8 million.

As of 8:30 a.m., the Mountain Fire was 85 percent contained, or surrounded, with containment expected sometime Wednesday, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The blaze has scorched an estimated 27,332 acres. The acreage is virtually unchanged since Sunday night, thanks to rain from thunderstorms over the past few days, officials said.

The area is expected to dry out Wednesday and Thursday, according to the Forest Service.

``As the burn area dries and warms, smoke may become visible from the interior of the fire,'' according to a Forest Service statement issued this morning. ``Crews will be working the fire edge today mopping up any hot spots and patrolling against any potential escape.''

Evacuations that affected as many as 6,000 people were lifted on Sunday, although the Riverside County Fire Department on Monday issued an evacuation warning for residents to voluntarily leave the area of Apple Canyon Road north of Bonita Vista Road because of possible flash flooding and debris flows.

A flash flood warning for the area expired at 9 p.m. Monday, but a diminished threat of thunderstorms, and with them possible flash flooding, continues today, said National Weather Service meteorologist Stefanie Sullivan.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which has been closed since Thursday due to smoke from the Mountain Fire in the Idyllwild area, is scheduled to reopen today. The nearby Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area, several campgrounds, Humber Park, and Pacific Crest Trail and its connecting trails remain closed.

The number of fire personnel assigned to the blaze has been cut by more than half, with 1,146 remaining as of this morning, down from 3,347 on Saturday. The ramping-down included reducing 228 engines to 24; 68 hand crews to 33; and 11 bulldozers to two. Six helicopters remain available if needed, officials said.

The blaze has claimed 23 structures, including seven homes, but no major injuries have been reported.

The fire is believed to have started around 1:45 p.m. on July 15 near the junction of Highways 243 and 74. The 23 structures swallowed by the blaze were all destroyed on July 15.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation but Jeanne Pincha-Tully, a U.S. Forest Service fire chief, said Thursday the fire was determined to be ``human-caused.''

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