CABAZON, Calif. – Four firefighters were killed Thursday when a fast-moving arson fire fed by Santa Ana winds churned through the rugged wild terrain of Riverside County, destroying homes and forcing hundreds of residents to flee.
The Esperanza fire burned more than 10,000 acres near Cabazon, 90 miles east of Los Angeles and about 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 1:10 a.m. PDT.
“This is an arson fire. This is a deliberately set arson fire,” Chief John Hawkins told reporters at an afternoon news conference. He is 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.
The county will establish a $100,000 reward to find the arsonist, officials said.
“Turn that scum in,” said Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley, one of many angry officials who vowed to find and prosecute those who started the blaze.
Hundreds of people have been evacuated and will stay overnight at community shelters or with friends.
But as many as 2,000 people were within a park for recreation vehicles and couldn’t be evacuated. The people are safe in what Hawkins described as a protected area.
The fire raced through the terrain, outpacing officials’ ability to keep track of the damage. Thursday morning, there were just 800 acres charred. Within eight hours, the damage had increased more than tenfold despite firefighters’ efforts and the usual assortment of land and air equipment.
It was on one of those rescue efforts that a crew of five firefighters was trapped in the rapidly moving fire that devoured their attempt to find safety.
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, according to Pat Boss of the U.S. Forest Service.
“These winds were devil winds,” Boss said. “They came out of nowhere.” The wind and the flames overran the quintet so quickly that “they never deployed their shelters,” he said.
Early reports had the crew trapped in their fire vehicle, but the position of the bodies later showed that they “had been running. They were fleeing for their lives … and the flames caught them,” Boss said.
The crew had been on duty for six hours when they were overtaken by flames at 8 a.m.
Three of the firefighters died at the scene, their bodies covered with burns. Two others were taken by helicopter to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where one died with burns over 90 percent of his body.
The fifth is in critical condition on life support.
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.
“All Californians are heartbroken” at the deaths, he said.