Fire forces mountain town to evacuate
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Artist Lewis Millett didn’t need much more than an order to leave his longtime Idyllwild mountain home after seeing 100 foot flames marching toward the mile-high hamlet that draws tourists, summer campers and students to a year-round arts and music school.
Millet and his wife scooped up the precious things that matter most from their three-story Southern California home: their two cats, his paintings and sculptures and one of his family’s prized heirlooms — his father’s Congressional Medal of Honor.
Millet was among the 6,000 residents and tourists told to evacuate the community in the San Jacinto Mountains about 100 miles from Los Angeles as the wildfire grew to more than 35 square miles Thursday, wreathing a ridge about 2 to 3 miles from town, fire officials said. The blaze also was 2 miles away from Palm Springs, but no homes were threatened there.
It had already destroyed at least six houses and mobile homes and several cars when winds shifted Wednesday and sent the blaze toward Idyllwild.
“It’s never been this bad, and it’s never been this close,” Millett, 61, said as he sat on a cot in an evacuation center in Hemet, a nearby community. “I have high anxiety.”
Fire officials said the blaze was just 15 percent contained and had been growing in an atypical manner.
“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.”
Officials worried about continuing spikes in heat and the huge plume that hovered over the area.
“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,” said Idyllwild Fire Protection District Chief Patrick Reitz.
But given the tough conditions and terrain, Forest Service spokesman John Miller said firefighters had made “great progress” by late Thursday night, and evacuations were called off for a few dozen homes in two small communities.
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.
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 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 spokeswoman Norma Bailey said of the trail.
Millett packed his car with as many belongings as he could. The Congressional Medal of Honor was bestowed upon his father Col. Lewis Millett in 1951 for leading the last bayonet charge in U.S. history in the Korean War. Other mementos, however, such as autographed photos signed by several U.S. presidents his father had met were left behind.
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.
Nearly 3,000 firefighters and more than a dozen aircraft were assigned to the fire. Two large firefighting aircraft were ready to help on request. Temperatures in the area could top 100 degrees.
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.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years and built with my own hands,” Lawrence Gotta, whose home in Pine Springs Ranch burned to the ground, told ABC News. “Uninsured. Paid for. Everything in the world I own is gone.”
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.
“The slightest little spark is going to make a run and torch trees,” Rose said. “It’s just so bone dry.”
Firefighters went door-to-door Wednesday to make sure residents were leaving. Residents said they are fully aware of the constant threat of a major wildfire.
“It’s just frightening,” said Steve Hamlet, 65, a recent retiree who moved to Idyllwild three years ago. “It’s in your bones. You know it’s coming and you are hoping and praying it doesn’t. It’s really a helpless feeling.”