Mountain Fire rages on as firefighters battle blaze on two fronts

Assemblyman Perez asks Governor to declare fire zone a state of emergency

MOUNTAIN CENTER, Calif. - Eastern winds caused the stubborn Mountain Fire to spread in multiple directions late Thursday afternoon.  To the North, the fire continued significant progression in the Tahquitz meadows area, but was held at the ridge.  The United States Forest Service says crews were working the edge of the fire and aircraft were aggressively applying water and retardant at the head of the fire throughout the day .

As weather conditions continue to change the fire remains active on the northwest and continues to threaten the community of Idyllwild.  At the southern flank, firefighters continued to protect communities by ensuring that backing fire did not build enough heat to create dangerous smoke columns.

In a late night statement, the United States Forest Service says that firefighters will continue to build on the progress made on containment lines.  The fire remains active in the North above Idyllwild and South near Trails End.  As temperatures cool, crews plan to take advantage of cooler weather. Nighttime air operations will continue and have been very effective supporting crews working the line.

Residents also have been allowed to return to the Apple Canyon and Bonita Vista areas as the threat to that area has diminished.

On Thursday afternoon, authorities held a press conference to discuss the latest updates on the Mountain Fire. Here is what we learned:

  • The fire is 2 miles from Palm Springs, but the city is not in any danger at this time.
  • The fire was human-caused, but authorities say they do not know the exact cause.
  • The fire is two-and-a-half miles from Idyllwild. The winds are coming from the east, and this along with the steep terrain between the town and the fire is what caused the evacuation.
  • 11 air tankers, 17 helicopters and nearly 3,000 personnel assigned to fighting this fire.
  • The Palm Springs Tram is not in danger at this time.
  • All but 5 percent of the people of Idyllwild evacuated. There is no word on when they will implement their re-population plan.
  • Incident Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley said these were the "bewitching hours," because this is when the large plume of smoke coming from the fire can drop embers almost anywhere in the area. 
  • She also said, "a 22,000 acre fire in California is not unusual, but a 22,000 acre fire in California this year, is very unusual."

Click here to watch the Mountain Fire press conference.

Riverside County declared a local emergency because of the fire,meaning the county eligible to receive state and federal funds, should those officials deem it necessary.  Late Thursday evening we learned that Assemblyman Manuel Perez  called on Governor Brown to issue a State of Emergency for the area.  

Since Tuesday, the Pérez district office team has been tracking this issue closely, including coordinating with Riverside County Board of Supervisors "Proclamation of Local Emergency."

"The state of emergency declaration is a much needed and important step to help rebuild and repair," said Pérez. "We need to make sure our communities gain access to the full spectrum of supports and resources available."

Meanwhile, The ``human caused'' wildfire burning through steep mountainous terrain in the San Bernardino National Forest was within sight of Palm Springs most of Wednesday, though a fire official assured that efforts to keep the 22,800-acre blaze away from densely populated areas were going well. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians said 6,000 of the 22,800 acres burned is on their reservation.

Thursday aerials of the Mountain Fire

``We are putting in place a strategy to work our way east ... to contain the fire,'' Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, a chief for the U.S. Forest Service, said during an early afternoon briefing outside a command post set up to coordinate operations connected with the Mountain Fire.

``We've lost three permanent homes and three mobile homes, but we got everybody out safe and sound,'' Pincha-Tulley said. ``We've got hotshots, Cal Fire resources and quite a fleet of aircraft available. We're doing pretty well. We are the national priority right now.''

She said flames from the monster blaze ``sloped over onto the desert side'' and were within two miles of Palm Springs' western boundary. But there was no immediate threat to the urban center itself.

She said the fire was ``human caused,'' but was still under investigation.

According to Pincha-Tulley, about 3,000 personnel were working the fire, with the most headway along state Route 74, which was serving as a natural fire break on the Mountain Fire's southern flank.

The USFS spokeswoman expressed concerns about the blaze's towering columns spitting embers miles away from the main inferno, further complicating efforts to get it under control.

``We've got 17 helicopters and lots of retardant,'' Pincha-Tulley said. ``So far, so good.''

She said evacuation orders remain in place in the communities of Trails End, Idyllwild and Fern Valley.

``If the fire goes over the slopes and makes a major run (downhill), we wouldn't have much time to get people out of there,'' Pincha-Tulley told reporters. ``We asked everybody to leave last night so we can secure the area without worrying about folks getting in the way.''

Patrick Reitz, chief of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District, said officials are ``optimistic and trying to remain optimistic ... we can keep this on the other side of the ridge so it doesn't come into town.''

Evacuation orders issued Wednesday include Forest Service land and Mount San Jacinto State Park and the Trails End community at the north end of Morris Ranch Road near Garner Valley, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Riverside County sheriff's Capt. Scot Collins said law enforcement personnel are patrolling evacuated areas.

Some 4,100 residences in the evacuation zones, plus 100 commercial properties, are threatened by the blaze, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller.

The evacuation orders affected about 6,000 people living northwest of the fire zone and were prompted in part by a shift of direction in the prevailing winds, said Melody Lardner of the Forest Service.

Pine Cove, Mountain Center, western Idyllwild and Poppet Flats were not affected by the evacuation orders, which were issued by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and the Idyllwild Fire Protection District.

Highway 243 was closed from Highway 74 to Interstate 10 in Banning, and Highway 74 was closed from Cranston Station in Hemet to Highway 371, according to Caltrans.

Smoke and ash, meanwhile, continued to bedevil the region. A smoke advisory issued by the South Coast Air Quality was in effect today for parts of the Coachella Valley, Hemet, the San Jacinto Valley, the Banning Pass area and the Anza area.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was closed Wednesday morning, continuing until further notice.

A total of 228 engines, 10 fixed-wing aircraft, 17 helicopters, 21 water tenders and 15 bulldozers were deployed as of this morning. The cost of operations has reached $6.1 million, according to the Forest Service.

The Mountain Fire ignited in the vicinity of highways 74 and 243, south of Mountain Center, around 1:45 p.m. Monday and has destroyed 23 structures. It's burning at a ``rapid'' rate through timber and chaparral in very steep and rugged terrain, according to the Forest Service.

Late Monday afternoon, two dozen area homes were ordered evacuated -- 20 in the Bonita Vista housing community northeast of Lake Hemet and four at nearby Fleming Ranch -- as was the Living Free Animal Sanctuary in Bonita Vista.

Camp Ronald McDonald and Camp Joe Sherman were voluntarily evacuated because of concerns about air quality.

Evacuation centers have been opened at Hamilton High School in Anza and Hemet and Beaumont high schools, and evacuation centers for animals were set up at Lake Hemet Campground in Garner Valley and the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus, according to the Forest Service.

The Pacific Crest Trail was closed from Highway 74 to Saddle Junction, as were all of the trails connected to the Pacific Crest Trail in the area. Hurkey Creek County Campground and hiking and mountain biking trails out of the campground and May Valley were also closed.

Large and Small animals can be brought to the San Jacinto Animal Shelter, 581 S. Grand Ave, San Jacinto CA.

Evacuation Routes
Hwy 74 into Hemet 
Hwy 243 into Banning 
Hwy 74 South towards Anza, Palm Desert

Road Closures
Hwy 74 will be closed in Hemet, no up bound traffic will be allowed 
HWY 243 will be closed in Banning, no southbound traffic will be allowed 
HWY 243 will be closed at Mountain Center 
HWY 74 closed at HWY 371

Evacuation Centers
Hamilton High School, Anza 
Hemet High School, Hemet 
Beaumont High School

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