California has declared a state of emergnecy and authorities said the fire was on course to possibly merge with a blaze in the San Bernardino National Forest, where it could feed on vast stands of tinder dry trees.
Firefighters have so far contained about 20 percent of the fire. Three kilometres away, another blaze in Millard had scorched 480 hectares in the forest and was five per cent surrounded.
In the scorched landscape left behind, residents returned to see how they fared.
“We’re very, very lucky,” said Sandy Dugan, whose home in Pioneertown still stood while the charred remains of others smouldered. “It’s hard to see your neighbours’ homes gone.”
Authorities said smoke from the blazes 160 kilometres east of Los Angeles could be detected in Las Vegas and Ogden, Utah.
State fire officials said that both fires could link up on the desert floor but they were at least 24 kilometres from any areas of dead trees.
Kevin Olson, deputy chief of operations in the headquarters of the California Department of Forestry, said it was possible “but not very likely at this time” that the fires would reach the timber stands.
Swathes of Southern California forests have been weakened by drought and killed by bark beetles.
For several years, workers have been cutting down dead trees near communities and roads. Thousands of acres have been cleared but experts say it will take up to 20 years to remove all the dead wood.
However, Deputy Chief Olson said there have been contingency plans for several years on how to fight fires and evacuate people in the beetle-infested areas.
The Sawtooth fire was ignited by lightning during the weekend and roared into an inferno Tuesday, racing through tiny high desert communities.
Forty-two houses, 55 other buildings and 91 vehicles were destroyed in Pioneertown and other communities near Yucca Valley.
About 1,350 firefighters worked the blaze with the help of bulldozers, helicopters and air tankers. Nine firefighters and two civilians have been treated for minor burns or smoke inhalation.
Evacuation orders have been lifted for Pioneertown and several other communities but residents of Burns Canyon and Rimrock are still unable to return home.