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California and the West

2 Die While Battling Riverside Brush Fires

Blazes: More than 21,000 acres are scorched as hundreds of residents flee flames spread by Santa Ana winds.

October 06, 1998|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIVERSIDE — An air tanker crashed, presumably killing the pilot, and a firefighter died of cardiac arrest while battling brush fires stoked by Santa Ana winds that burned out of control Monday.

One blaze, near Banning on the south side of the Interstate 10, had consumed more than 18,000 acres of brush by 9:30 p.m., and a second had scorched more than 3,200 acres, coming within feet of homes in Cherry Valley, on the north side of the freeway, as fleeing residents were replaced by hundreds of firefighters.

The first tragedy of the day came with the discovery that a retardant-dumping air tanker--a single-seat, Korean War-vintage Grumman S-2--had crashed on a ridge near the larger fire. The unidentified pilot was presumed killed, said Karen Terrill, chief of public information for the California Department of Forestry in Sacramento. The crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In the evening, a second firefighter died of cardiac arrest while battling the second, smaller fire in Calimesa, forestry officials said. The unidentified victim became ill and collapsed on the lawn outside a burning home.

"He was lying on the lawn and we brought him a pillow out," said resident Missy Starrette. "He said he just didn't feel good and so he laid down, and then he went into cardiac arrest."

Another firefighter suffered smoke inhalation in that fire, which damaged the house and a shack and destroyed a mobile home.

The larger fire, between Banning and San Jacinto, erupted about 6 a.m. Monday and quickly grew in size as Santa Ana winds, blowing at 35 mph with higher gusts, fanned the blaze out of control. More than 600 residents were evacuated from a housing development in southwest Banning, and heavy smoke covered much of western Riverside County by mid-morning and grew as the day went on. Most of the evacuees were allowed to return home shortly after sunset.

An additional 500 residents were evacuated from the area near the smaller fire, but all were allowed to return in the evening. Those who did not evacuate used hoses to soak roofs while helicopters dropped tons of water on the fire.

"I went outside because the smoke was getting bad," said Bob Jacobsen, 69, an evacuee from the Sharondale Senior Citizen Development. "I saw the flames and said, 'Throw the medicine in the truck.' We had no warning whatsoever."

His wife, Mary, 67, felt the flames "prickle" her skin as she opened the security gate for firefighters.

At night, more than 1,000 firefighters had been assigned to the two blazes, which were edging to within several miles of each other. Several rural outbuildings were burned to the ground.

There were no estimates on when the fires would be contained, but by night both had moved into inaccessible terrain and were not threatening homes. Cause of the fires is under investigation.

Among the roads closed in the area were California 243, California 79, Gilman Hot Springs Road, and Cherry Valley Boulevard.

Winds also were blamed for an 80-acre brush fire that broke out on a tract being prepared for development in Moorpark, in an area bounded by California 23, Spring Road, New Los Angeles Avenue and Tierra Rejada Road.

No houses were threatened, but full containment was not expected until late Monday, said Joe Luna, a spokesman with the Ventura County Fire Department.

Times staff writer Joe Mozingo and correspondent Diana Marcum contributed to this story.

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