A CAL FIRE air tanker drops fire retardant on the Mountain Fire early Monday afternoon. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

At about 1:45 p.m. Monday, July 15, the Mountain Fire began burning near Highway 243. The fire began on the west side of Highway 243 but quickly jumped the road and began blazing through the U.S. Forest Service Keenwild Guard Station grounds.

Tuesday afternoon, the fire was burning the wilderness above Garner Valley and working its way down Palm Canyon, according to John Miller, Forest Service public information officer. A strike team was deployed to the southern end of the Palm Canyon.

During the first afternoon, flames and smoke could be seen just below the agency’s helicopter site at Keenwild and along the road at the front of the station.

A CAL FIRE helicopter drops water over the Forest Service Keenwild Ranger Station during the first day of the Mountain Fire. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

Local fire officials quickly established a unified incident command, led by Forest Service Chief Dan Felix of the San Jacinto Ranger District and Riverside County Division Chief David Fulcher.

By evening, a decision was made to request a Type 1 Incident Management Team. The unit was expected to arrive Tuesday evening and take control of battling the blaze.

By noon Tuesday, the fire had consumed nearly 8,000 acres and more than 700 firefighters were here protecting the Hill. Containment was estimated to be 10 percent.

An undetermined number of structures were destroyed in Apple Canyon Monday evening, but specifics were still awaiting the Damage Assessment Team’s completed investigation.

Fire officials were employing air resources — tankers and helicopters — throughout the day to drop water and fire retardant on and in front of the spreading conflagration. For the first time, a night-flying helicopter was used on the San Bernardino National Forest, the result of a recent Forest Service policy change. The following day, two DC10s were deployed to the fire.

On Monday, a firefighter is fighting the Mountain Fire on Highway 243. Photo by Jenny Kirchner

By late Monday afternoon, the fire was entrenched in Apple Canyon. Residents there were evacuated.

Five firefighters have incurred minor injuries, Miller said.

Highways were quickly closed to allow passage of fire vehicles and equipment. As of noon Tuesday, Highway 243 from Mountain Center to Saunders Meadow Road remained closed, but was still open north to Banning. Highway 74 was open to traffic in both directions.

Fire officials urge anyone but residents to avoid using Highway 74. Fire vehicles are using the highway to move equipment to various hot spots. By Wednesday, the command post will be near Lake Hemet and more fire traffic will be using the roadway.

Besides the roads, the Pacific Crest Trail from Highway 74 to Saddle Junction and all connecting trails were closed to hikers.

Other than the Apple Canyon area, no other evacuations had been ordered, but fire officials urged residents to adhere to the “Ready, Set, Go” policy and be in a “Ready” mode.