Calif. crews fear wind in battle with wildfire


The Associated Press

POPPET FLAT, Calif. -- Fire crews struggled to protect homes Friday from a wind-whipped wildfire that trapped and killed four firefighters as it raced through Southern California mountains.

The blaze in the San Jacinto Mountains, which authorities said was arson, has blackened nearly 24,000 acres, or almost 38 square miles, and already forced hundreds to evacuate. Fire officials worried that the strong wind could shift and blow flames toward populated areas west of Palm Springs.

At one point, hundreds of mountain residents took refuge with campers in a nearby RV park where crews could protect them.

The wildfire, the nation's deadliest in five years, was only 5 percent contained early Friday as more than 1,100 firefighters worked to protect homes and build fire lines.

"We need to be on our business today, folks. It's serious out there for at least the next 24 hours," Tim Chavez, a fire behavior analyst, said during a morning briefing of firefighters in Beaumont.

Forecasters predicted strong Santa Ana wind that could reach up to 60 mph, possibly threatening the communities of Hemet and Idyllwild. A "red flag warning" was in effect through Saturday night because of a mix of strong wind, low humidity and warm temperatures.

The fire has destroyed at least five homes, and firefighters had to evacuate additional areas overnight, including a small community south of Banning.

"Normally the fire dies down and the wind let up, but that didn't happen last night. It burned like it was daytime," Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry told The Associated Press.

Fire officials were mourning the deaths of four U.S. Forest Service firefighters killed while attempting to protect a home close to where the fire began in Cabazon on Thursday. The flames came so quickly the five-person crew had no time to retreat to its engine or use portable fire shelters.

Authorities said a $100,000 reward would be offered for information leading to the arsonist's arrest.

Authorities haven't revealed why they think the fire was arson.

Killed were engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, of Idyllwild; engine operator Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; assistant engine operator Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

A fifth firefighter -- identified as Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley -- had burns over almost his entire body and also had severe respiratory damage, officials said.

Loutzenhiser was a father of five, said Pat Boss, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

The wildfire was the nation's deadliest since July 2001, when four firefighters died after being trapped by flames on a dead-end road in Washington's Okanogan National Forest.

Thursday's deaths brought to 19 the number of California firefighters killed in the line of duty over the past year, according to the California Professional Firefighters, a lobbying organization.

At least one civilian suffered minor injuries and 200 people in the small mountain communities of Poppet Flat and Twin Pines were forced to flee their homes, authorities said.

In all, nearly 700 people in the area were evacuated, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters in Sacramento.

Timo Hargu, 61, said he rushed from his hilltop home with his two dogs after he looked out a window and saw the fire burning in a nearby valley.

"The whole thing was ablaze with flame," he said. "It was the most spectacular view. A terrible view, but spectacular."

As many as 1,000 people who had come to the Silent Valley Club RV Resort near Poppet Flat for annual Halloween events were unable to leave after firefighters closed the only road out of the community. TV footage showed vehicles racing through smoke and flames just before the road was closed.

Firefighters said it was safer to keep the people in the RV park because the blaze was stymied by an existing firebreak around the area.

As that fire raged, another sprung up in neighboring Orange County, about 50 miles southwest. There, firefighters were battling a brush fire that started overnight and forced about 140 people to flee a campground in the Cleveland National Forest near the city of Lake Elsinore, county Fire Capt. Steve Miller said.