BANNING, Calif. - Firefighting officials are predicting full containment of the Silver Fire by Sunday after decreased winds resulted in exponential advances in fighting the blaze.
Steve Kaufmann, a fire captain with the Ventura County Fire Department, and a member of Cal Fire's Incident Management Team No. 6, said the expected containment date for the blaze is Sunday. By Saturday morning, containment of the wildfire - which had grown to 19,000 acres - had increased to 47%.
Although the fire is no longer flaming, the potential for destruction still exists.
"We're in a phase where we can't turn our backs. We have to pay attention. An ember can takeoff and ignite this hillside," Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean said, pointing to a nearly 100-yard high outcropping just feet away from where he was standing.
"Is there still danger? Yes."
Containing the wind-driven Silver Fire became something of a waiting game Friday for emergency personnel even as evacuation orders in some of the affected communities were lifted.
"When they gave the evacuation order (Thursday) there was pretty extreme fire behavior moving east toward Snow Creek," Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said of the blaze, which started Wednesday afternoon just south of Banning. "As of (Friday) morning the fire behavior has subsided substantially, so that particular threat is nowhere near what it was."
Fire crews attacked the blaze from two sides to keep it out of Snow Creek - a community west of Palm Springs.
Solomon attributed Friday's downturn in fire activity to a decline in wind gusts, which were clocked at about 10 to 12 mph by the afternoon, down from as much as 33 mph Thursday night.
The day's advances prompted authorities to lift the mandatory evacuation orders in the affected communities of Snow Creek, Cabazon, Mt. Edna and Poppet Flats - although residents were asked to obtain and display official access passes, which were distributed at Hemet High School.
Evacuations are still in effect in the communities of Twin Pines and Silent Valley due to safety concerns and ongoing fire operations, Cal Fire and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said. Highway 243 also remains closed for similar reasons.
More than 2,100 fire personnel are involved in fighting the Silver Fire, which is blamed for injuring five firefighters and one civilian, and destroying 26 homes and one commercial building.
The Silver Fire - believed to be about 27 square miles - continued to head in an easterly direction into the Snow Creek drainage, fire officials said Friday, adding that they are preparing for the worst should an expected wind shift take place Saturday.
Caused by two high-pressure systems in the Southern California area, the possible shift could change the direction of the Silver Fire.
As a result, fire crews gathered Friday along the blaze's western front on Twin Pines Road off Highway 243 south of Banning and on the eastern front near Highway 111, north of Palm Springs, outside of Snow Creek.
About 20 aircraft - air tankers and helicopters, including a jumbo jet converted to carry fire retardant - doused the fire in tandem, said Scott Packwood, air operations branch director of the Silver Fire incident management team.
Seven air tankers blanketed the mountainside with retardant, in a move designed to "box in" the flames so they couldn't reach Snow Creek.
For Christine Giles, a 10-year resident of Snow Creek, abiding by the mandatory evacuation orders wasn't easy.
She said a column of smoke loomed over her house on Thursday night, and she knew a fast-moving fire wasn't far behind. As she drove to a hotel, she wondered what, if anything, would be standing when she came back.
Giles returned to Snow Creek midday Friday to check on her home. It was just as she left it, and a fully loaded fire truck was parked across the street, watching like a guard dog.
The fire was still just over the mountain ridge, but it didn't seem as threatening anymore, she said.