IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Longtime resident Dave Jones was back in his Southern California home a day after evacuating, but remained ready to leave as a huge wildfire fire threatened to top a ridge near his mostly empty mountain town.
The walls were bare in the home where he's lived for the past 40 years after the 64-year-old and his wife stowed the valuable mementos, along with more practical items, like clothes, jewelry, medicines and the computer hard drive before heading to their son's home in nearby Hemet.
"The fire came right up by the ridge yesterday afternoon, gave everybody a pretty good scare that it was going to come down the hill," Jones said Thursday night.
The last time he evacuated for a fire it was 1997, and he stayed away for four days. Jones said he considered the order he got Wednesday "a light evacuation" and wasn't afraid because he knows of a controlled dirt road to use as "an escape route" if fire does come down that ridge.
Forest Service spokesman John Miller said firefighters had made "great progress" by late Thursday night given the tough conditions and terrain, and evacuations were called off for a small handful of the thousands under orders to leave.
But the 35-square-mile blaze remained just 15 percent contained and had been growing in an atypical manner. The majority of the 3,300 fire fighters are on the western flank of the fire, near Idyllwild.
"Usually it cools down at night and we get more humidity. That hasn't happened," said Tina Rose, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It's been burning like it's daytime for 72 hours in a row."
Temperatures were expected to dip into the 60s overnight before creeping up into the 80s on Friday.
"What we're concerned about is what you see right here," said U.S Forest Service Fire Chief Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, pointing to a hazy sky. "When you get a column that puts out this much smoke, embers get into the column and can drop anywhere."
She added the column was expected to go right over Idyllwild for the next two days. While authorities said only 5 percent of the town rebuffed evacuating, they cautioned they might not be able to help those who remain if conditions worsen.
"We cannot guarantee your safety if the fire runs into town," Idyllwild Fire Protection District Chief Patrick Reitz said.
The 22,800-acre fire spread in three directions through thick brush and trees. Roughly 4,000 houses, condos, cabins and several hotels in Idyllwild and surrounding communities were threatened. Fire crews struggled to carve fire lines around the town to block the towering flames.
Authorities said the fire was "human-caused" but they wouldn't say whether it was accidental or intentional. There have been no reports of any injuries.
Idyllwild, the small town on the other side of the mountains that tower over the desert community of Palm Springs is known for the arts and is surrounded by national forest popular with hikers and flanked by two large rocks that are favorites for climbers. Popular campgrounds, hiking trails and a 30-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to Canada were closed.
"That's going right down the middle of the fire," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Norma Bailey said of the trail.
The evacuation center was alive with music Thursday as four teenage French horn players from Idyllwild Arts Academy rehearsed a piece by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner in a courtyard behind the cafeteria. They said they found it relaxing to play in an uncertain moment. On the other side of the building in the shade, a group of counselors picked at guitars and a ukulele.
"There were a lot of people practicing last night. I took out my piccolo and played a little bit," said Sophia Yurdin, 16, of Los Angeles.
Grayson Hall, 17, a counselor at a Center for Spiritual Life camp that rents space from Camp Buckhorn said campers were aware a fire had been burning and were surprisingly calm when first told they had to leave.
"We had just done an emotional exercise about acknowledging your emotional baggage and letting it go. And right after we finished that, we got word that we had to evacuate. And we had to literally release our baggage," he said.
The blaze that began Monday destroyed three houses, damaged another and destroyed three mobile homes, a cabin, a garage and about a half-dozen vehicles, the Forest Service said. Five commercial buildings, 11 other buildings and several smaller structures were also lost.
The fire was about 12 miles from the site of the 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and destroyed 34 homes and burned an area that hadn't burned in many years.