'Bottom Of The 9th' For SoCal Wildfire

San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Tim Metzger and firefighter Tim Schenck work to put out hotspots in the Twin Pines, Calif., area, Oct. 29, 2006. AP/San Bernardino Sun, Brett Snow

Firefighters believed they were within range of corralling a wildfire that claimed four lives and 34 homes in a run that has been both brief and fierce.

With the help of cooler temperatures and moist air off the ocean, firefighters have gotten the upper hand, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker. They now have it 85 percent contained.

The fire, which authorities believe was deliberately set, still threatened wilderness plagued by drought and filled with dead trees, but fire officials were confident they could get the blaze under control by Monday evening.

"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.

Since it started around 1 a.m. Thursday, the fire has burned 40,200 acres, or about 63 square miles, northwest of Palm Springs.

Hundreds of people evacuated from the areas of Twin Pines and Poppet Flat were able to return to their homes briefly Sunday to collect belongings, retrieve necessary medicines and check on animals. Many found little to come home to.

"There's nothing left, just a couple of walls and rubble," said Oscar Pineiro, 52, who returned to his Twin Pines house with his wife only to find it in ruins.

Fire officials were still concerned with the blaze's eastern flank, which borders a wilderness area that hasn't burned in more than 30 years and has been devastated by a bark beetle infestation that has killed hundreds of trees.

"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.

If the Santa Ana winds that quickly whipped the fire out of control on Thursday morning stay away, firefighters expect to surround the last of the blaze quickly.

But a shift in the winds could change everything, as it did last week when a gust pushed a wall of flames around five firefighters who were trying to protect a house. Four of the firefighter died, while another remained hospitalized with serious burns over most of his body.

Pablo Cerda, 23, was in critical condition Sunday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. He underwent surgery Friday to remove damaged skin.

His doctors said he was showing signs of stability.

"If that continues, we'll take him back for more surgeries later this week," said Burn Unit director Dr. Victor Joe.

About 50 of Cerda's relatives gathered at the hospital, praying for Cerda.

"They want everyone to know that Pablo's dream was to help people, and on Thursday morning, that's just what he was doing — protecting and serving," said Eddie Cortez, a family spokesman.

Vigils were held at several Southern California churches and fire stations for Cerda and to pray for the families of the fallen firefighters. Killed were Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

More than 225 tips have been received by the Riverside County Sheriff's office regarding the arson investigation, said Sheriff Bob Doyle.

Cabazon residents said they saw two young men leaving the fire's ignition point.

"We're keeping a real tight lid on the investigation," said Michael Jarvis, a California Department of Forestry spokesman. "We're just asking people to call in with their tips."

Another blaze broke out Sunday in Warner Springs and blackened about 100 acres. That fire forced the evacuation of about 100 homes in the rural community about 70 miles northeast of San Diego.

More than 200 firefighters, five helicopters and an air tanker rushed to the scene to defend about 14 homes in the path of the fire, which was moving east toward the Los Coyotes Indian reservation. It was five percent contained late Sunday.
  • Lloyd Vries

Comments