Mother nature helps firefighters battling Mountain Fire

Crews will be monitoring any hot spots and flare-ups

IDYLLWILD, Calif. - As previously evacuated residents of Idyllwild and Fern Valley began the week back at home, a whittled-down firefighting force waited  today to see if Mother Nature would finish off the wildfire that has blackened more than 27,000 acres of the San Bernardino National Forest.

There was an additional threat of thunderstorms and flash floods through today following more than 3 inches of rain at the weekend, fire officials and weather forecasters said.

``Due to excessive rainfall, most divisions are unstaffed, with a few patrols to monitor for hot spots and flare-ups,'' a U.S. Forest Service update said Sunday night.

The fire was 68 percent contained as of 6 p.m. Sunday, having scorched 27,279 acres of chaparral and timber and claimed 23 structures, including seven homes, though without causing major injuries.

The fire's behavior was described by the Sunday night update as ``smoldering with isolated hot spots'' and ``fire spread minimal.'' But the projected time for full containment remained noon Friday, as before the rains.

Fire personnel were trimmed by nearly half, with 1,861 remaining as of Sunday night, down from 3,347 the day before, fire officials said. The ramping down included reducing the 228 engines being deployed to 87, the 68 hand crews to 57, and 11 bulldozers to two. A DC-10, six other fixed-wing aircraft and 13 helicopters remained available if needed, they said.

With the evacuations of Idyllwild and Fern Valley lifted Sunday, Highway 243 was reopened in the area, officials said. The San Bernardino National Forest and Humber Park remained closed, as did the Pacific Crest Trail and and trails connecting to it. 

Evacuation centers closed at 8 p.m. Sunday, leaving anyone needing help to contact the American Red Cross, officials said. The small animal shelter was to return to normal business today.

Only one evacuation remained in force today. Camp Ronald McDonald was voluntarily shut down due to health concerns about air quality.

The Mountain Fire, as it's been named, is believed to have started around 1:45 p.m. a week ago today near the junction of Highways 243 and 74. The 23 structures swallowed by the blaze were all destroyed Monday.

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

The Forest Service has estimated the cost of the fire at more than $18 million.

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