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Evacuations lifted as Southern California wildfire 68 percent contained

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July 21, 2013: A ladder truck flies the American flag to greet residents back to Idyllwild after the evacuation order was rescinded in the areas affected by the Mountain Fire. (AP Photo)

Thousands of people were allowed to return to their homes in Southern California mountain communities near Palm Springs on Sunday, after firefighters aided by heavy rain made substantial progress against a week-old wildfire that has burned across 42 square miles and destroyed seven homes.

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department lifted evacuation orders at 11 a.m. for the communities of Idyllwild, Fern Valley and Pine Cove, from which thousands had fled the advancing flames five days before. Authorities said only local residents and business people would be allowed to return.

Evacuation orders for several smaller nearby communities had been lifted earlier in the day.

Some 6,000 people fled the idyllic little towns that dot the San Jacinto Mountains between Palm Springs and Hemet after the fire broke out Monday and quickly raged across the heavily wooded area. Twenty-three structures, including the seven homes, were destroyed. There were no reports of injuries.

With the arrival of an inch and a half of rain Sunday morning, firefighters began to beat back the flames and had the blaze 68 percent contained. Rain continued to fall off and on throughout much of the day. Winds were only 5 to 10 mph and humidity was 95 percent.

"With diminished fire activity, firefighters made great progress with line construction, particularly along the east side towards Palm Springs," U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller said.

The fire was still far from extinguished, however.

The thunderstorm helping douse the flames could also bring lightning, wind and flooding, said Miller, all hazardous conditions for fire crews.

The fire was less than two miles from Idyllwild on its western flank. It was a similar distance from Palm Springs below on the desert floor, where an enormous plume of smoke could be seen.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which carries people nearly 6,000 feet up a rugged canyon to a mountain peak overlooking the tourist resort, was closed Sunday because of unhealthy air quality. Crews were also building fire breaks in the area.

Authorities have said the fire was human-caused, but wouldn't say whether it was accidental or intentional.

More than 1,800 firefighters battled the blaze Sunday, using bulldozers, helicopters and other equipment.

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