UKIAH, Calif. — The death toll in California's most destructive series of forest fires rose to eight when a firefighter perished after a shifting blaze in Lake County engulfed his crew.
The four surviving firefighters were stranded and without medical attention in the remote mountainous region for more than three hours Tuesday as flames kept California Department of Forestry helicopters from landing. The cries of the injured men could be heard for several hours, witnesses said.
"The fire was so hot that we couldn't set our helicopters down," said Dana Cole of the Forestry Department. "We had to have special choppers flown in to get them off the mountain."
Several helicopters circled the area making water drops to keep the temperature down, Forestry Department spokeswoman Karen Terrill added.
About 200 firefighters battled the fire about six miles northwest of Lake Pillsbury. The burned area increased from 50 to 200 acres in less than six hours, Forestry Department spokesman Bob Ceriani reported.
D. Lee Cullins, 31, of Arcata, died as the five-man crew was removing vegetation in the path of a "spot fire" started by embers blown a short distance ahead of the main blaze. The larger fire suddenly roared in their direction and merged with the smaller fire, Ceriani said. Cullins was pronounced dead at the scene.
"I understand that they smelled the hot gasses that act as warning of the approaching fire, and that's when they decided to take shelter," Ceriani said.
The five men jumped into fire resistant pup tents covered with reflective material.
"It's a last-ditch resort. You cover yourself fast, put your face in the dirt and pray," said Capt. Jim Wattenburger of the Forestry Department.
The surviving men were airlifted to the Chico Community Hospital burn center, about 15 miles northwest of Clear Lake, by Coast Guard helicopters.
Late Tuesday night they were listed in serious but stable condition with second- and third-degree burns, Wattenburger said.
The survivors were identified as Doug McDonnell, 31, of Eureka, who had burns over 27% of his body; Thomas Brown, 31, Covelo, burns over 33% of his body; Bob C. Murrias, 27, burns over 22% of his body, and Jeff C. Smith, 28, burns to his lungs.
The fire started Monday in heavy brush and timber near a state game refuge south of Mendocino National Forest.