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Thousands flee as 18,000-acre California wildfire spreads

The so-called "Silver Fire" in California comes on the heels of a historic fire season that has seen little rainfall. The aggressive blaze is threatening hundreds of homes. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes as a wind-whipped wildfire, which has swept across 18,000 acres, continued to spread toward Palm Springs Friday.

Some 2,000 residents fled parts of Cabazon and the surrounding area south of Banning on Wednesday and Thursday as the blaze, dubbed the “Silver Fire,” spread east through the San Jacinto mountains, a desert range 90 miles east of Los Angeles. 

By Friday evening, it had burned 18,000 acres and destroyed 26 homes and one commercial structure, according to the state agency Cal Fire. It was 40 percent contained, Cal Fire said.

Dave Matthews told NBC News that he had lived in his house for 10 years, and it burned down in 10 minutes while firefighters watched helplessly.

"The house across from me or right next door to me, that was fully engulfed," he said. "There was nothing they could do when they got there."

Despite the danger, some were refusing to leave. Longtime homeowner Donald Tousseau was one of the few who refused to evacuate from the community of Snow Creek on Friday.

"I've been through this before," Tousseau told NBCLosAngeles.com. "I don't like to be a hazard or a handicap to the firemen, because I know they worry about you. But if it came to the time, and it's really dangerous, I'd get out."

Authorities put yellow caution tape on the mailboxes of those who stayed behind, NBCLosAngeles.com reported.

Susana Medrana teared up as she prepared to evacuate Thursday with her children, who sat her pickup after grabbing the new clothes and backpacks they had bought for the school year, The Associated Press reported. "It's hard because we don't know what's going to happen," Medrano said.

David McNew / Reuters

Fire spreads up the north side of the San Jacinto Mountains on Thursday near Banning, Calif.

Earlier, one resident was left with head-to-toe burns and five firefighters were injured in the fire.

The victim “very, very tragically was very badly burned” Cal Fire Riverside Chief John R. Hawkins told NBCLos Angeles.com Thursday.

More than 1,600 firefighters and eight helicopters continued to fight the flames as the blaze spread east towards Palm Springs.

Cal Fire said evacuation orders had been issued for the communities of Black Mountain, Vista Grande, Mount Edna, Poppet Flats, Twin Pines and Silent Valley, along with Snow Creek village and parts of Cabazon.

A map produced by Cal Fire showed several other wildfires in the state — including in Riverside County, in the Sierra National Forest, in the Stanislaus National Forest and in the Klamath National Forest. A new fire erupted Thursday afternoon near Wrightwood, northwest of San Bernardino, and grew to 100 acres on Friday, forcing the mandatory evacuation of 75 homes.

About 100,000 acres have burned across California so far this year, roughly double the number at the same time last year.

Michael Palmer, lead meteorologist at Weather.com, said the dry conditions are the big factor. "They are in a drought," he said.

Temperatures in the area were in the high 80s and low 90s on Friday, and high winds complicated the situation for firefighters.

Jason Redmond / Reuters

Firefighters rush to move their hose from spreading flames as the Silver Fire burned in the foothills in Cabazon, California, Wednesday.

The West has already suffered a series of destructive wildfires in 2013. Colorado experienced the most destructive wildfire in its history in June, which killed two and destroyed about 500 structures. As that fire burned, 11 other fires plagued the state and more threatened other parts of the Southwest.

The following month, 19 heavily trained Hotshot firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona.

NBC News' Miguel Almaguer, Ian Johnston and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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