Reward in wildfire deaths at $500k

Reward in wildfire deaths at $500k

28 October 2006

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California — Weary firefighters continued to endure harsh terrain andweather in their battle to control the growing Esperanza wildfire yesterday asthe pool of reward money for the arrest of those who started the deadly firegrew to $500,000.

Four US Forest Service firefighters were killed Thursday by the blaze, thenation’s deadliest wildfire in five years. A fifth firefighter was in gravecondition with burns over 90 percent of his body.

More than 1,700 firefighters worked through wind-whipped smoke yesterday tobattle the nearly 40-square-mile fire, which has forced about 700 people to fleetheir homes.

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

“The next 36 hours are going to be key for this thing,” said MikeGiannini, battalion chief of the Marin County Fire Department, one of theagencies supplying crews.

Investigators have not said how they know the blaze was arson, how it was set,or why. But they said those responsible could face murder charges.

Two young men were seen leaving the area where the fire broke out about 1a.m. Thursday. Also, investigators said they were looking into whether thewildfire was related to other blazes in recent months, including a canyon firelast weekend.

Fed by dry brush, low humidity, and winds gusting to 45 miles per hour, thefire has consumed more than 24,000 acres, but the scale of its damage isexpected to grow. Officials said the fire was about 5 percent contained andcontinued to move mainly to the west and southwest.

It has destroyed at least 10 houses. Another 500 homes and three commercialstructures are threatened by the inferno, according to the California Departmentof Forestry and Fire Protection. There is no estimate for the monetary damage orthe cost of fighting the fire.

Firefighters yesterday evacuated another 100 homes at the south end ofBanning, near Silent Valley.

The Air Quality Management District also warned yesterday that smoke from theEsperanza wildfire was expected to create unhealthful air-quality conditions inRiverside and Orange counties.

Officials released the names of the firefighters trapped Thursday in thewildfire while trying to save a house. Three died at the site, and the fourthdied at a hospital.

Killed were engine Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, of Idyllwild; engineoperator 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 in Arrowhead Regional MedicalCenter in Colton. He was identified as Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.Cerda had burns over 90 percent of his body, severe lung injuries, and wasplaced on life support.

Nationally, it is the worst disaster involving firefighters battling awildfire since 2001, when four firefighters were trapped by flames and killed inWashington state. For California, the death toll was the highest for a wildfirein nearly three decades.


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