Mother of firefighter killed in Calif. blaze

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Forecasters predict winds could ease, which would help firefighters.


The Associated Press

SOBOBA HOT SPRINGS, Calif. -- The mother of one of the four firefighters who died battling a wildfire that authorities blamed on arsonists urged those who set it to turn themselves in Saturday.

"I firmly believe you didn't believe that things were going to turn out the way they did, but they did," said Bonnie McKay, whose son Jason, 27, died Thursday. "Don't let the remorse eat you alive. Come forward. ... I for one will try not to judge you. There is only one who can judge you."

Meanwhile, firefighters took advantage of calm weather and dissipating Santa Ana winds, making headway against the 62-square-mile conflagration by dumping water and retardant on flames using a fleet of helicopters and airplanes, including a DC-10 jumbo jet.

"Today is a turning point that will tell if our containment survives," said Janet Upton, a California Department of Forestry spokeswoman at the command post in Beaumont, 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

The 39,900-acre blaze blaze was 40 percent contained, two days after blowtorch gusts overran a U.S. Forest Service crew, killing four of its members and leaving a fifth clinging to life with burns over most of his body.

Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, was listed in critical condition Saturday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center after surgery Friday to remove damaged skin.

A reward for information leading to the arsonist has soared to $500,000, as $100,000 posted by Riverside County quickly multiplied with matching offers from the state, neighboring San Bernardino County, Rancho Mirage resident Tim Blixseth and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.

Investigators were looking into whether the wildfire was related to other blazes in recent months, including a canyon fire last weekend, though a sheriff's spokesman said there was no immediate indication of a serial arsonist.

Fire officials said there had been six other minor injuries to firefighters and, after completion of damage assessments, raised the number of destroyed homes to 27, up from earlier estimates of 10.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for about 500 homes in Twin Pines and Poppet Flat, communities where homes burned. Residents were allowed back in for several hours to retrieve personal items and feed or remove animals.

Forecasters predicted winds would ease and temperatures would drop slightly throughout the weekend, which could help as crews work to build firelines around the blaze.

The north side of the fire, paralleling Interstate 10, was considered well-contained. On the west flank, Highway 79 was reopened after firefighters stopped the fire's advance in that direction.

Major firefighting activity focused on the south side of the fire to prevent any southerly spread toward small communities including Soboba Hot Springs and San Jacinto.

Water-dropping helicopters operated from a landing zone in a grapefruit orchard on the Soboba Indian Reservation as retardant bombers flew overhead, and a half-dozen bulldozers lined up at the mouth of Castile Canyon, ready to move in to cut fire breaks.

Hotshot crews of reinforcements moved in as fire Battalion Chief Art Nevarez and his crew from neighboring Orange County came out of the canyon after a night of firefighting in what one called "goat country."

"We were real fortunate last night because the wind lay down for us," said Nevarez, who helped fight another major wildfire last month.

"When the Santa Anas come through, then it's really the big finale," he said of the fire season.

On Saturday, fire vehicles were gathered in the area and investigators walked with heads down as they looked for evidence around the ignition point near Esperanza Avenue.

One law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity described the investigation as being in its "infancy."

Authorities declared the fire arson within hours of its start but have withheld details of any evidence they have. Fire officials have noted an unusual number of fires in the area in recent months, including one in a nearby canyon a week ago.

Associated Press writer Andrew Glazer contributed to this report from Beaumont and Cabazon.

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