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California town empties amid firefight

This image provided by Meagan Greene shows wildfire smoke near Idyllwild, Calif., on Wednesday. (Associated Press)
This image provided by Meagan Greene shows wildfire smoke near Idyllwild, Calif., on Wednesday. (Associated Press)

Evacuation orders target 6,000 as forecast calls for cooling off

IDYLLWILD, Calif. – Firefighters were cautiously optimistic that this popular getaway town could be spared as crews battled a wildfire Thursday raging through forested slopes south of Palm Springs.

Working in searing conditions and aided by water-dropping aircraft, crews cleared paths and laid down red-colored fire retardant on the outskirts of Idyllwild and several nearby communities – an effort to contain the flames and keep them from residential areas.

“That’s our primary goal,” said Bob Poole, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, who noted the blaze came as close as 2 miles to Idyllwild. “But fire sometimes is unpredictable.”

In all, about 3,000 firefighters have fought the flames, which torched 22,800 acres and was just 15 percent contained by Thursday afternoon.

Firefighters weren’t helped by the weather. Daytime temperatures remained in the 90s and weren’t expected to ease until today, when a cooling trend could begin.

Forecasts show rising chances of humidity and rain today, but also possible thunderstorms, which could start more fires.

“It’s kind of good news, bad news,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Harrison.

The blaze began Monday afternoon just south of town and spread quickly, fueled by dry trees, chaparral and underbrush. Six homes were lost in the fire’s early stages. No deaths have been attributed to the fire, but three firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

Investigators said they believed the fire was man-made but had not determined a precise cause.

Residents of communities on the other side of the range, which include Palm Springs and the rest of the Coachella Valley, were keeping a close watch. While officials said the fire was not expected to crest the range and race north into the valley, the popular Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was closed.

Idyllwild, known for its low-key ambience and concentration of free spirits, artists and music lovers, was all but abandoned.

Roughly 6,000 people had been ordered to evacuate an area that includes about 2,200 homes. The evacuation was ordered, Poole said, because of fears the wind might shift and push the blaze into the secluded community.

Many residents ended up at Red Cross shelters at public schools in nearby Anza and Hemet.

Idyllwild “is built around the fact we’re vulnerable to a fire,” said longtime resident Joanna Bruno, 58. She had evacuated to the Hemet High shelter with her two 15-year-old grandchildren.

Bruno and others spoke of their fondness for living in a sparsely developed mountain area where the urban crush of traffic gives way to chirping birds.

But she and others at the shelter said they know such seclusion puts them in a precarious position: They must keep a constant vigil for wildfires and be prepared to leave on short notice.


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