Evacuees Return to Find Homes Destroyed by Calif. Wildfire

November 1, 2006

While crews made progress on a wildfire that killed four firefighters, 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 but was unable to bear the sight of what was left of her own lopsided 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 in search of jewelry and other valuables, but found little more than a blackened fork and knife and remnants of her China.

Nearby, other homes were burnt to the foundation.

“There’s nothing left, just a couple of walls and rubble,” said Oscar Pineiro, 52, who had returned to his home with his wife.

Fire officials said 34 homes and 29 other buildings have been destroyed in the fire that broke out last Thursday in uninhabited brushland about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

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

Meanwhile, firefighters launched an aggressive aerial attack on the 63-square-mile conflagration as Santa Ana winds dissipated, and the mother of one of the firefighters killed in the blaze that authorities blamed on arsonists urged those who set it to turn themselves in.

“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.”

Fire crews took advantage of calm weather, using a fleet of helicopters and airplanes, including a DC-10 jumbo jet, to drop water and retardant on flames.

They expected to get an even bigger boost Sunday with temperatures forecast to drop into the 70s.

Still, forestry officials worried about the fire spreading in one area.

Scott McLean, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry, said the southeastern flank was threatening to spread to Black Mountain, a steep mountainous forest that would be difficult for firefighters to access.

“If it goes there, the fire is going to hell in a handbasket,” McLean said.

Firefighters planned to focus on the south side of the fire Sunday to prevent any spread toward small communities including Soboba Hot Springs and San Jacinto.

The 40,450-acre blaze was 60 percent contained, three 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 in critical condition late Saturday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center after surgery Friday to remove damaged skin.

Investigators combed the area Saturday, looking for clues on how the fire engulfed the men so quickly. They also interviewed firefighters who were nearby when it happened, Al Matecko, spokesman for a national investigating team.

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.

The fire was set at the base of a slope in the city of 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.

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