A 3-day-old wildfire flared out of control Tuesday, scorching more than 17,000 acres and destroying more than 30 homes and outbuildings in and around Pioneertown, the Old West outpost and former movie set outside Joshua Tree National Park in San Bernardino County, fire officials said.
Called the Ridge fire and caused by a lightning strike at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, it was being fanned by 20-mph winds. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in Pioneertown, Pipes Canyon, Burns Canyon, Flamingo Heights, Rimrock and Gamma Gulch, where residents scrambled to protect homes and businesses and drive horses to safety. Morongo Valley was also being threatened, but no evacuations had been ordered there by late Tuesday, said Annette Avila, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Glenn Barley, fire information officer with the state fire agency in San Bernardino County, said temperatures in the mid-90s, low humidity and strong winds combined to push embers from what was a small fire on a remote ridge north of Morongo Valley across desert scrub, Joshua trees and fine grasses.
"There's plenty of fine fuels to carry and spread the fire," which was burning northeast and not threatening Yucca Valley, the largest town in the region, Barley said.
Evacuations were ordered for a widespread area where 800 to 1,000 people live, Avila said. An evacuation center was set up at Yucca Valley High School. In all, 2,500 firefighters were battling the blaze.
Officials said two civilians and seven firefighters suffered burns and other minor injuries. The blaze filled the sky with reddish-white smoke.
The area "is pure pandemonium: Everybody running around with horse trailers trying to help everybody evacuate their horses," said Carol Post, owner of the Red Dog Saloon on Pioneertown's main drag, Mane Street. Post has been restoring the watering hole -- which burned down in the 1960s -- for two years, and was just about to open shop.
"I was very nervous," she said, describing how the flames licked a few lots away from her bar Tuesday afternoon.
She was forced to remain at home in Yucca Valley, abandoning the cow skulls, 1940s- and '50s-era movie posters, and old Pioneertown photos plastered on the Red Dog's walls.
"It's kind of a helpless feeling, because you can't be there to pour water on your roof," said Post, 70.
Jim Austin's phone was ringing off the hook with neighbors worried about the fire's spread and lamenting having to leave their horses behind as they fled the valley.
The owner of Rimrock Ranch Cabins was in San Diego, checking online as to the fate of his four guest houses, which had to be evacuated.
"It's been hell," Austin said of the long-distance emergency. Firefighters blocked another of Austin's neighbors from returning home to retrieve her leukemia medication.
"If a lot of that stuff burns down, it'll be very, very sad," Austin said.
Times staff writers Maeve Reston and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.