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Hundreds evacuated from children's camps in path of raging Southern California wildfire

The Mountain Fire is growing, threatening nearby communities as it churns through mountainous terrain. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

About 210 children and at least 75 volunteers and staffers were safely evacuated from two campsites in the path of a rapidly growing  wildfire in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California, authorities said Wednesday.

The so-called Mountain Fire, which ignited Monday afternoon, grew by almost 50 percent overnight to 14,200 acres, state and federal fire officials said. It remained only 10 percent contained and carried an "extreme" potential for further growth, they said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation, said Melody Lardner, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The fire has spread heavy smoke across the Coachella Valley, leading to the evacuations of Camp Ronald McDonald, a charitable campsite for children with cancer, and the Girl Scouts' Camp Scherman.

All of the 130 campers and 75 volunteers and staff members were safely evacuated from Camp Ronald McDonald, said Sarah Orth, the camp's executive director. She said Wednesday that the evacuation was ordered as a precaution because of the heavy, choking smoke in the area.

"This is a camp for special needs kids, so we decided that it may take a little bit longer to get the kids out of there if it was necessary," Bob Poole, a spokesman for the Forest Service, told NBC Los Angeles.

About 80 girls and the staff of Camp Scherman, about 10 miles southeast of Mountain Center, were also safely evacuated, Emily Perkins, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Orange County, told The Desert Sun of Palm Springs.

All roads that had been closed Tuesday were reopened Wednesday, but mandatory evacuation orders remained in effect for the historic homes of the Andreas Canyon Club in Palm Springs, the towns of Bonita Vista and Pine Springs and the Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist retreat.

Stuart Palley / EPA

A woman watches flames from the Mountain Fire move over a hill.

Wednesday night the Riverside County sheriff and fire officials ordered the evacuation of the Idyllwild and Fern valley communities as well as U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and Mt. San Jacinto State park. 

Several other campgrounds and recreation spots in the area also remained closed due the the fire, including a section of the popular Pacific Crest Trail.

The state and federal Interagency Incident Information Service said at least six homes had been destroyed in Bonita Vista, along with a commercial building, a workshop, a garage and a cabin in Pine Springs. At least four vehicles were also destroyed. 

"Ninety-five to 97 percent of my home is gone. That's according to many neighbors that went back in there," Lawrence Goda of Bonita Vista told NBC Los Angeles. 

"I'm trying to get back there to see for myself, but I feel like everything I worked for all my life is probably up in flames," he said.

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The flames were spreading through timber and chaparral, or shrubland, that are highly flammable because of the dry winter, officials said. About 3,000 personnel from 73 fire crews representing 17 local, state and federal agencies were on the scene Wednesday, along with an armada of equipment that included 128 fire engines, 16 helicopters, 10 air tankers and 12 bulldozers.

Steep, inaccessible terrain, 90-plus daytime temperatures, humidity in the single digits and shifting winds have "challenged initial attack engines, crews and aircraft," fire officials said in an update Wednesday.

But "it is important to note that while homes and buildings were destroyed or damaged, firefighters were able to defend and save a larger number of homes," it said.

Henry Austin and Sossy Dombourian of NBC News contributed to this report.


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