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Southern California wildfire explodes, 3 injured

3:54 AM, Aug 8, 2013   |    comments
Smoke from the Silver Fire near Banning, Calif., covers downtown Palm Springs on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. (Photo: Michael Snyder, The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun)
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LOS ANGELES -- A fast-moving wildfire exploded in size soon after it ignited Wednesday afternoon, burning some homes and forcing the evacuation of dozens of families in Riverside County west of Palm Springs.

The fire burned an estimated 5,000 acres -- or nearly 8 square miles -- in four hours after it began shortly after 2 p.m. PT, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for Cal Fire, the state department of forestry and fire protection.

"It has been a very fast moving fire,'' Berlant said. "It exploded this afternoon, really due to the fact that conditions are critically dry across California.''

The fire was uncontained as night fell, and smoke from burning chaparral and other brush choked the air in Palm Springs, the desert resort town about 20 miles to the east of the burning area.

Three people were injured. One civilian was burned and airlifted to a hospital, U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller said. Two firefighters were also injured, but details were unavailable, Miller said.

State fire spokeswoman Julie Hutchinson said the wildfire near Banning was blocking the highway escape route of some residents who were told to shelter in place. Deputies who were trying to help them evacuate were also forced to remain.

It was not clear how many people were involved. Hutchinson said officials were trying to assess how they are doing.

The Desert Sun of Palm Springs reported multiple structures had burned. One man, Dave Clark of the Twin Pines community, watched as his house was consumed by flames while the homes of nearby neighbors were spared.

Fire officials ordered the evacuation of three communities: Poppet Flats, Twin Pines and Silent Valley. Video images from TV news helicopters showed several structures burning. Berlant said the evacuation affected several dozen homes.

An evacuation center was established at a high school in the town of Hemet.

State highway 243, which connects the city of Banning on the desert floor with nearby mountain communities, was closed. The fire was in dry, hilly terrain about 85 miles east of Los Angeles.

More than 450 firefighters were on the scene, along with more than 70 fire engines, four air tankers and five helicopters. Fire officials named the blaze the Silver Fire.

Palm Springs officials said its residents were in no immediate danger, but that the smoke was affecting visibility at Palm Springs International Airport, delaying flights into and out of the Coachella Valley, The Desert Sun reported.

"Within just the last half hour the smoke intensity is now affecting visibility and it is affecting airline flights," said Tom Nolan, executive director of the airport. "The airport remains open, but it is the individual airlines that must determine if they can land or not in these conditions."

William M. Welch, USA TODAY - Contributing: The Desert Sun and the Associated Press

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