Watch CBSN Live

SoCal Blaze Kills 4 Firefighters

Fire crews were working Friday morning to hold the western edge of a fast-moving blaze that raced across 15 miles of terrain with the help of hot, dry Santa Ana winds, killing four firefighters who became trapped by a wall of flames.

The wildfire, started deliberately, engulfed a fire engine Thursday killing four firefighters and prompting officials to accuse the unidentified arsonist of murder.

The blaze blackened nearly 24,000 acres, the equivalent of almost 37½ miles, in the rugged San Jacinto Mountains just west of Palm Springs. It destroyed 10 structures, and at least five were homes. At one point, a few hundred mountain residents were forced to take refuge in a nearby RV park where crews could protect them.

Called the Esperanza Fire, it was only 5 percent contained as more than 1,100 firefighters worked to protect homes and build fire lines. Late Thursday, crews were being sent to Highway 79, near the western border of the fire, to prevent flames from spreading further west overnight.

The blaze stranded up to 400 people in an RV park Thursday when flames burned to the edge of the only road out, officials said.

"Everybody is hunkered down here. They're fighting the fire around us. It's across the street from us," said Charles Van Brunt, a ranger at the station at the entrance to Silent Valley Club. The residents were in no immediate danger, he said.

"Its gonna come close, it's gonna brush right next to us, but I think (the California forestry department) will do what they need to do to take care of us," Joann Trosper, the RV park's manager, told CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.

One Forest Service crew was trying to protect a house as dry desert winds blew a wall of flame down on them in the hills northwest of Palm Springs.

"They had left their truck to do structure protection when the fire overran them," said Forest Service spokesman Pat Boss, adding that the flames came down so quickly they had no time to retreat to their engine or use protective sheltering.

Three firefighters died at the scene, and two were hospitalized in critical condition. One of those two died several hours later. The other had burns over 95 percent of his body, Boss said.

Officials said the blaze was deliberately set around 1 a.m. (PST), and fire Chief John Hawkins said the arson "constitutes murder."

The surviving firefighter had severe respiratory damage, said Dr. Dev Gnanadev, a trauma surgeon at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center.

"Overall, the chances of survival are low when you have that bad of an injury," he said at a news conference.

Thursday's deaths brought to 19 the number of California firefighters killed in the line of duty over the past year, according to statistics kept by California Professional Firefighters, a lobbying organization.

It was the deadliest wildfire firefighting disaster in the United States since July 10, 2001, when four firefighters were killed in Washington's Okanogan National Forest. They died after becoming trapped by flames on a dusty dead-end road in a remote canyon.

A $100,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest of the person that started the fire.

All Forest Service personnel were pulled off the fire after the deaths so they could "gather their thoughts, say their prayers," he said.

Names of the firefighters who were killed and injured were not immediately released.

Thick smoke blanketed the small RV park, where as many as 400 people were stranded, authorities said.

Residents fled in the middle of the night, sometimes driving straight through the flames, with horses, and even llamas in tow, Whitaker reports.

Van Brunt said people were advised to "watch the news and stay comfy."

The fire was stymied by a firebreak created around Poppet Flat and the RV park years earlier, sheriff's Cpl. Todd Garvin said.

"This is a safe haven here. That was cleared about six years ago and it still works. It's amazing," Garvin said.

"We're sad because we didn't have time to get our animals," Desirrah Adkins said.

This year, almost 9.5 million acres have burned in the United States — more than any year since records have been kept, CBS News reports.

The fire was burning in a valley with a few scattered ranch homes, but the hamlets of Poppet Ranch and Twin Pines were evacuated along with a juvenile center, Twin Pines Boys Ranch.

In all, nearly 700 people were evacuated, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters in Sacramento. Schwarzenegger signed an emergency proclamation designed to free up state resources to help fight the blaze and make Riverside County eligible for financial assistance.

"The biggest concern is if it gets over the hills," Becky Luther, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Fire Department. "That's where all of the homes are."

Officials worried the fire could reach an area of the San Bernardino National Forest where a bark beetle infestation had killed trees that could easily fuel a blaze. In the valley where the fire was burning Thursday morning, the ground cover is mostly grass and chaparral that burns hot and quick, allowing the fire to spread quickly but with little staying power, Luther said.

An emergency evacuation center was set up at Banning Community Center, near Cabazon, where the fire was raging.

Timo Hargu, 61, said he rushed from his hilltop home with his two dogs after he looked out a window and saw fire burning toward him in a valley. "The whole thing was ablaze with flame," he said. "It was the most spectacular view. A terrible view, but spectacular."

Cabazon is about 90 miles east of Los Angeles and 17 miles northwest of Palm Springs in Riverside County.

View CBS News In