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updated: 7/18/2013 11:33 AM

6,000 still evacuated as S. Cal wildfire surges

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  • Smoke pours into the sky from the Mountain Fire near Idyllwild, Calif., Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Large parts of the Southern California communities of Idyllwild and Fern Valley were under evacuation orders.

      Smoke pours into the sky from the Mountain Fire near Idyllwild, Calif., Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Large parts of the Southern California communities of Idyllwild and Fern Valley were under evacuation orders.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

IDYLLWILD, Calif. -- A Southern California wildfire that forced 6,000 people to flee was more than 35 square miles in size Thursday as fingers of flame swept along mountain ridges above Palm Springs, authorities said.

The fire, which has destroyed at least six houses and mobile homes, gained thousands of acres and was only 15 percent contained Thursday morning, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Norma Bailey said.

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"It burned actively through the night," she said, and crews trying to flank it had to watch out for burning debris crashing down the steep, timbered ridges in the San Jacinto Mountains.

"They're being careful of things that are rolling down the hillside."

The 22,800-acre fire spread in three directions through thick brush and trees some 100 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Lawrence Gotta's home in Pine Springs Ranch burned to the ground.

"I've lived here for 30 years and built with my own hands," he told ABC News. "Uninsured. Paid for. Everything in the world I own is gone."

Roughly 4,100 houses, hotels, condos and cabins in Idyllwild and surrounding communities were threatened. Fire crews struggled to carve fire lines around the town to block the towering flames.

Nearly 3,000 firefighters and more than a dozen aircraft, including a giant DC-10, were assigned to the fire, which was leaping along rocky ridges in the popular summer tourist spot. Temperatures in the area, which rises above desert lands, could top 100 degrees.

The blaze, which began Monday, has destroyed three houses, damaged another and destroyed three mobile homes, a cabin, a garage and about a half-dozen vehicles, the Forest Service said. Eleven outbuildings, five commercial buildings and several smaller structures also have been lost.

Some 6,000 residents and visitors in Idyllwild and smaller surrounding communities had to clear out Wednesday as the blaze, which was heading away from them toward the desert, changed course.

Roccio Gutierrez quickly collected her two daughters and clothes as she prepared to evacuate.

"It's scary," Gutierrez told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. "I thought they had it under control."

Firefighters went door-to-door to make sure residents were leaving as a huge plume of smoke loomed about a mile away, but some evacuees were optimistic.

"I don't see the town burning down," Elaine Moore, 73, who has lived on the mountain for more than 30 years, told the Press-Enterprise. "We've been through it before. We just have to keep chugging along."

Tina Rose, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the blaze was showing extreme behavior in 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."

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.

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