4 firefighters die in blaze

The Baltimore Sun

CABAZON, Calif. -- Four firefighters were killed yesterday when a fast-moving arson fire fed by Santa Ana winds churned through southeastern California, destroying homes and forcing hundreds of residents to flee.

The Esperanza fire burned more than 10,000 acres near Cabazon, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles and 20 miles northwest of Palm Springs.

Fueled by dry wood, high temperatures and winds gusting to more than 30 mph, the blaze burned out of control as more than 700 firefighters fought to tame the fire that was reported about 1 a.m.

"This is an arson fire," said Chief John Hawkins, head of Riverside County's Fire Department, which is part of the state's fire agency.

"A deliberately set arson fire that leads to the death of anyone constitutes murder," he said.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated and will stay overnight at community shelters or with friends. But up to 2,000 people were at a park for recreation vehicles and could not be evacuated. The people are safe in what Hawkins described as a protected area.

The fire raced through the rough terrain, outpacing officials' ability to keep track of the damage. By yesterday morning, 800 acres had been charred. Within eight hours, the damage had increased more than tenfold as the fire spread despite firefighters' efforts.

It was on one rescue efforts that a crew of five firefighters was trapped by the rapidly moving fire.

U.S. Forest Service crew 57 had its engine parked and hoses ready to defend homes when flames shot up a hill from the south and engulfed the men north of Twin Pines, said Pat Boss, a Forest Service spokesman.

"These winds were devil winds," Boss said. "They came out of nowhere."

The flames overran the men so quickly that "they never deployed their shelters," he said.

Early reports said the crew members were trapped in their fire engine, but the position of the bodies showed that they had been running.

"They were fleeing for their lives ... and the flames caught them," Boss said.

The Alandale firefighters had been on duty for six hours when they were overtaken by flames at 8 a.m. Three died at the scene, their bodies covered with burns. Two others were taken by helicopter to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, where one died with burns over 90 percent of his body, officials said.

The fifth was on life support and was listed in critical condition last night at Arrowhead.

At an afternoon news conference, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged that his administration will do everything it can to fight the fire and to aid the evacuees.

Earlier, Schwarzenegger briefed reporters outside the student union on the campus at California State University at Fresno.

"So far, 700 people have been evacuated," he said. "We have 700 firefighters battling the fire right now to contain it. My, and my wife's, all of our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those firefighters who were killed in this fire."

One major effort was to protect up to 2,000 people in the Silent Valley RV Park who were in the hills south of Banning near Poppet Flats, said Fire Capt. Rick Griggs of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

He said the people who had vehicles in addition to their RVs were allowed to leave, but those who only had RVs had to remain.

"Our decision was to shelter them there," Griggs said. "The width of the road is so narrow that it could have been dangerous," to bring the RVs out.

More than 500 residents were evacuated from Twin Pines and Poppet Flats, in a sparsely populated mountainous area between Banning and Hemet. The fire also threatened Silent Valley near Idyllwild, according to Cheri Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Fire Department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

About 150 homes were threatened, with the majority, about 100 homes, in Twin Pines.

"With this type of rapid wind, a fire is always a threat," she said.

Michael Muskal, Scott Martelle and Maeve Reston write for the Los Angeles Times.

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