(Bulk of evacuation orders lifted; diminishing winds help subdue fire)
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Firefighters tightened their grip around a wind-driven blaze roaring for a third day through dry brush east of Los Angeles as evacuation orders were lifted on Friday for hundreds of homes, but the tally of property losses climbed higher.
The so-called Silver Fire erupted south of the Riverside County town of Banning and by Friday evening had charred some 17,500 acres (7,100 hectares) on the rugged northern and eastern slopes of Jan Jacinto Mountain, authorities said.
Four firefighters suffered minor injuries, and a civilian was severely burned in the blaze, which has raged since Wednesday through tinder-dry scrub land and grass about 85 miles (137 km) east of downtown Los Angeles, officials said.
As of Friday morning, a firefighting force of more than 1,600, backed by a squadron of water-dropping helicopters and a team of bulldozers, had managed to carve fire breaks around 25 percent of the blaze's perimeter, up from 10 percent a day earlier.
"We're definitely making very good progress," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlandt said.
Another CalFire spokesman, Kevin Lucero, said efforts to subdue the flames were helped by diminishing winds on Friday, after two days of gusty conditions that had fanned the fire's rapid growth.
The blaze, one of dozens burning across several western states, is the latest to unleash significant property losses during a U.S. summer fire season that experts predict could become one of the worst on record.
Residents of more than 500 homes had been forced to flee their dwellings at the peak of the blaze, but evacuation orders for the bulk of those communities, about 20 miles (32 km) west of the desert resort of Palm Springs, were lifted on Friday evening as the fire threat subsided.
An evacuation remained in effect for a nearby mobile home park and a small enclave called Twin Pines. Several campgrounds in the area have also been closed.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation.
Some residents within the evacuation zone were initially advised to stay put in their homes as approaching flames cut them off from a safe escape route on Wednesday, but those evacuees were later moved out of harm's way, Berlandt said.
The toll of documented property damage from the fire was revised upward on Friday, to 26 homes and a commercial building destroyed from 15 structures lost, county fire officials said. Two other homes were listed as damaged.
"Hundreds of homes ... are still standing because of the aggressive efforts of those firefighters," Berlandt said, adding that the majority of dwellings threatened by the blaze have so far been protected.
The Silver Fire was burning on the opposite side of San Jacinto Mountain from where an earlier fire threatened the resort town of Idyllwild last month, destroying several homes and forcing the evacuation of about 6,000 residents, tourists and business owners.
Earlier this year, a Colorado wildfire that ranked as that state's most destructive on record ravaged nearly 500 homes and killed two people. In Arizona, 19 members of an elite firefighting crew died on June 30 while battling a wildfire. (Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Ken Wills and Mohammad Zargham)