Calif. Blaze that Killed Four is 70 Percent Contained

October 30, 2006

Dying winds and cooler temperatures helped firefighters begin to get the upper hand Sunday on a 63-square-mile wildfire that killed four firefighters, although the blaze was still threatening a wilderness area plagued by drought and filled with dead trees.

Fire officials said the 40,450-acre blaze was 70 percent contained four 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 Sunday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center after surgery Friday to remove damaged skin. Six other firefighters suffered minor injuries.

More than 2,800 firefighters were aided by a fleet of helicopters and airplanes, including a DC-10 jumbo jet that dropped water on flames or painted the rugged, scrub-covered canyons of Riverside County with long swaths of red fire retardant. About 500 firefighters were expected to be sent home Sunday.

Fire officials said they were concerned about the eastern flank of the blaze that borders a wilderness area that hasn’t burned in more than 30 years and has been devastated by a bark beetle infestation.

“This is the only place the infrared shows any activity at all. This is also the place with the heaviest fuels we have,” said fire analyst Timothy Chavez.

However, favorable weather conditions, including temperatures in the 70s, have encouraged firefighters to set full containment at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“It’s the bottom of the ninth so we want to make sure we hit it out of the park and win this thing,” said Mike Wakoski, an incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service.

While fire crews made progress on the blaze, evacuees began returning to their homes — often to find nothing left.

Carol Hurley stood Saturday at the still-smoldering wreckage of a neighbor’s house in Twin Pines but was unable to bear the sight of what was left of her own lopsided dream home.

“I’m not ready to see it,” said Hurley, 68. “I just want to remember it like it was.”

Three of her children and a grandson dug through piles of concrete searching for jewelry and other valuables, but found little more than a blackened fork and knife and remnants of her China.

Only the stone fireplace and one corner of the foundation was left. The rest was in palm-sized pieces, looking as though it had been shattered by a wrecking ball. The charred carcass of a rabbit sat in the driveway.

Nearby, other homes were burnt to the foundation.

“There’s nothing left, just a couple of walls and rubble,” said Oscar Pineiro, 52, who along with his wife returned to their Twin Pines home and found it pulverized.

In total, 34 homes and 20 outbuildings have been destroyed, officials said.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for about 500 homes in Poppet Flat and Twin Pines, the community where the firefighters died Thursday while trying to protect a house.

Residents were allowed back in for several hours to retrieve personal items and feed or remove animals.

The Esperanza Fire was set shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday at the base of a slope in the city of Cabazon as Santa Ana wind howled out of the northeast. Cabazon residents say they saw two young men leaving the scene.

Authorities declared the fire arson within hours of its start but have withheld details of any evidence they have.

Meanwhile, Farmers Insurance Group of Companies is advising its customers suffering damage from the recent fires to immediately contact their agent or call the 24 hour claims hotline, 800-HelpPoint (800-435-7764).

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