Calif. fire keeps growing

Winds, terrain hamper battle

October 28, 2006|By Scott Gold and Michael Muskal | Scott Gold and Michael Muskal,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEAUMONT, Calif. -- Weary firefighters continued to endure the harsh terrain and weather in their battle to control the growing Esperanza fire yesterday, as the pool of reward money for the arrest of those who started the killer blaze grew to at least $300,000.

Fighting gusting Santa Ana winds, crews tried to build a 50-foot firebreak to contain the fire, which burned into its second day with no estimate of when it would be brought under control. The Esperanza fire in Riverside County is less than 20 miles west of Palm Springs.

The sharp winds are expected to continue until at least tonight, said Mike Giannini, battalion chief of the Marin County Fire Department, one of the agencies supplying about 1,750 firefighters.

"The next 36 hours are going to be key for this thing," he said.

Fed by dry fuel and bitter winds, the fire has consumed more than 24,000 acres, but the scale of its damage is expected to grow by nightfall when the latest measurements are completed.

The fire is about 5 percent contained and continues to move mainly to the west and southwest, being driven by east to northeast winds.

It has destroyed at least 10 houses, and 500 more homes and three commercial structures are threatened, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

There is no estimate for the value of damage or for the cost of fighting the fire.

Two local roads, Highways 79 and 243, remain closed.

The Air Quality Management District also warned that smoke from the Esperanza wildfire is expected to create unhealthful air quality conditions today in areas of Riverside and Orange counties.

Even as fire battle wore on, officials released the names of the firefighters trapped Thursday in the fast-moving blaze when they were trying to save a house. Three died at the site; the fourth died at a hospital.

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 was in critical condition yesterday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. He was identified as Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.

Cerda has burns over 90 percent of his body and severe lung injuries; he was placed on life support. His chances of survival are considered poor.

Despite the loss of four of their own, firefighters fought throughout the day.

The rough terrain in the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County just west of Palm Springs posed difficulty keeping the blaze from the more populated areas, said Janet M. Upton, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In addition to the usual tactics of dropping retardant from the skies and bulldozing dead vegetation, firefighters ignited a small backfire in Beaumont about a half-mile from a school with 80 children with special needs.

The fire was started to ensure that the Esperanza fire did not leap to the school's grounds.

The children moved into the gymnasium but did not leave the building.

"Anytime we get winds blowing by, we are worried, but we were all ready to go if necessary," said Lynn Elder, who handles community relations for the school, Child's Help, in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains.

When the sun rose yesterday, the wind was already gusting so much that it sent swirling dust devils across the fields at the command post.

In Washington, the White House joined the list of public officials to express their condolences over the firefighters' deaths.

"A little bit ago, the president placed a phone call to Tom Tidwell, who's the deputy regional forester of the U.S. Forest Service, to express condolences over what is now being called the Esperanza incident, a fire near Palm Springs, California, that has claimed the lives of four firefighters," said spokesman Tony Snow.

The president also "said he hopes that whoever is the perpetrator will be caught quickly and brought to justice."

Scott Gold and Michael Muskal write for the Los Angeles Times.

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