Four firefighters killed in California wildfire

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A wind-whipped wildfire started by an arsonist killed four firefighters and stranded up to 400 people in an recreational-vehicle park in California.

"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 recreational vehicle park near Palm Springs. The residents were in no immediate danger, he said last night.

Authorities asked people in the park to stay put to leave roads clear for firefighters. Hundreds of others in the area were forced from their homes.

Fire officials said the blaze was deliberately set around 1 a.m. Fire Chief John Hawkins said the arson "constitutes murder."

It was the deadliest wildfire firefighting disaster in the United States in five years. The Forest Service crew was trying to protect a house as dry desert winds of 25 mph or more blew a wall of flames 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.

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

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.

Another official believed the blaze was set just as the winds picked up in order to maximize destruction. Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle dispatched homicide detectives to the scene to work with FBI agents during the investigation.

Authorities planned to offer a $100,000 (¤79,000) reward in the case.

"Turn that scum in, please," Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley said.

In less than 24 hours, the fire blackened almost 38 square miles (97 square kilometers), and more than 1,100 firefighters were brought in along with water-dropping helicopters and planes. Ten structures were destroyed, and at least five were homes.

The massive fire, which was only 5 percent contained, roared 15 miles (24 kilometers) to the west from where it began. Resources were being concentrated along a highway that firefighters hoped to keep the blaze from crossing.

The weather service had issued a "red flag" warning for extreme fire danger because of the high winds and dry conditions.

Thick smoke blanketed the small RV park, where as many as 400 people were stranded, authorities said. TV footage showed some vehicles racing through flames and smoke just before firefighters closed the road.

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.

Some residents of Poppet Flat sought shelter at the RV park, officials said.

The fire started early Thursday, burning in a valley with a few scattered ranch homes. The hamlets of Poppet Ranch and Twin Pines were evacuated along with a juvenile detention center, Twin Pines Boys Ranch.

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

Construction contractor Charlie Miner suffered minor burns when he drove his backhoe through the flames to escape in Twin Pines. "It was so intense I was screaming," Miner said. "Sparks were flying everywhere."

The fire could be seen burning along ridgelines, with flames leaping as high as 100 feet (30 meters) into the air. Pillars of smoke were quickly blown away, and at one point, smoke could be smelled on the Pacific coast, 100 miles away.

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."

By nightfall the fire's main front was pushing west toward Lambs Canyon, a sparsely populated, rugged area with brush several feet high, said Diana Newcomb, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.