Killer wildfire doubles to 24,000 acres
Fire teams in Southern California early Friday had gained a small measure of control over a raging wildfire near Palm Springs -- a fire that has killed four firefighters, forced mandatory evacuations and doubled in size. By early Friday, the fire was 5 percent contained as crews worked to secure the blaze's perimeter. The size of the blaze had doubled from 10,000 acres Thursday to nearly 24,000 acres early Friday. A fire official said the blaze was the work of an arsonist and could lead to murder charges against whoever is responsible. "This is a deliberately set arson fire," said John Hawkins of the Riverside County Fire Department. "An arson fire that leads to the death of anyone constitutes murder."
The four firefighters were part of a five-man U.S. Forest Service crew fighting the Esperanza blaze about 15 to 20 miles southwest of Palm Springs. Forest Service officials said the crew was attempting to protect a house when the wind shifted suddenly and they were overtaken by flames between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.
Three of the firefighters were dead at the scene, and the fourth died at a burn center later Thursday. The fifth was in critical condition at the burn center, Hawkins said. The Forest Service was still in the process of notifying the firefighters' families of the deaths, said Allison Stewart, a district ranger for the San Bernardino National Forest. "These people were heroes, and they did what they do every single day," Stewart said. "And they did it with no reservations, and they did it for the love of what they do." Hawkins did not provide details about how officials knew the fire was deliberately set, citing the ongoing investigation. Arson investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene.
Officials said, however, that the blaze was set in a place and under conditions that would almost guarantee maximum damage. "It was set in alignment with the wind, the slope," Hawkins said. "It was basically set to go." The Riverside County Board of Supervisors is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible, and members of Congress representing the area were spearheading a drive to raise funds for the slain firefighters' families.
'These people were heroes'
Local, state and federal officials expressed anger and outrage. "The people who fight fires are among the bravest men and women anywhere," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said. "Anyone that is risking their lives to save others is a true hero." Schwarzenegger said he had requested that every available resource be devoted to fighting the fire and ensuring the evacuees "have everything that they need." Mandatory evacuations went into effect in the early hours of Thursday for the Twin Pines and Poppet Flats communities. Hawkins estimated up to 200 people were evacuated from Twin Pines and another 100 from Poppet Flats. Both communities are near Highway 243, which was closed from the town of Banning southward. Highway 79 was closed from Beaumont to Hemet.
Up to 500 people were "sheltered in place" at the Silent Valley Club RV Park off Highway 243, Hawkins said. "We don't like to characterize them as trapped," he said. "'Sheltered in place' means we couldn't evacuate them in time. They're going to encounter heat, smoke, but they're probably going to be OK." He said he could not estimate how long the people would have to remain there, saying the fire would have to slow down and run through the area before they could be moved out. Officials said they were under the protection of firefighters.
Wind gusts of up to 30 mph
The fire grew exponentially throughout the day. As of 8 p.m. (11 p.m. ET), Hawkins said, nearly 24,000 acres had been burned in the fire that stretches about 15 miles east to west. Asked about containment, he said it was 5 percent contained. One civilian burn injury was reported, Hawkins said, but he did not provide details. At least 1,100 personnel were on hand to fight the fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Winds in the area of the fire were erratic, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Don Camp told CNN. "Winds are sustained at 18 to 25 mph with gusts up to 30 out of the east, which is ... making a major push on the fire to the southwest," he said.
Many structures have been destroyed, including homes, according to what can be seen on video. Hawkins confirmed that homes had been destroyed but said he did not know how many. Later Thursday, Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency for Riverside County and ordered that flags at the State Capitol in Sacramento and all California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection facilities throughout the state be flown at half-staff for 72 hours to honor the fallen firefighters. Patrick Chandler of the Riverside County Fire Department said the area had been under a red flag warning for about two days because of dry conditions and gusty winds. The Riverside County Fire Department is a unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.