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California and the West

Fires Blacken 28,000 Acres in Riverside

Blazes: Santa Ana winds die down but one blaze is still out of control. Residents are allowed to return home.

October 07, 1998|DIANA MARCUM and BONNIE HARRIS HAYES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BANNING — Firefighters battling on multiple fronts in Riverside County set backfires Tuesday in an attempt to halt blazes that have claimed two lives and consumed 28,000 acres.

The Santa Ana winds that had rapidly spread the fires began to ease, and residents who had been evacuated from the area were allowed to return home.

"It's starting to look real good," said Ben Stewart, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry. "Everything is riding on the wind."

On Monday, two firefighters died fighting the flames near Banning. A pilot was killed in the crash of a state-owned fire-retardant bomber, and a fire captain suffered a fatal heart attack.

A huge force was assembled against the two blazes burning within miles of each other in northern Riverside County: 2,500 firefighters, 11 air tankers and 13 helicopters.

The so-called Mount Edna fire grew to 23,898 acres and was still out of control late Tuesday, but no structures were threatened. It began south of Banning and swept west, south of neighboring Beaumont to the badlands, but short of Moreno Valley.

To the north, the 4,200-acre Taylor fire was 68% contained. The fire was burning between Beaumont and Calimesa to the west.

Meanwhile, firefighters in San Diego also battled Santa Ana wind-whipped fires Tuesday.

Six homes under construction in the upscale Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of San Diego were burned to the ground, and dozens of occupied homes were threatened.

The fire burned at least 50 hilly acres before being extinguished by San Diego firefighters and two aerial tankers from the California Department of Forestry, officials said. The flames came within 50 feet of some homes in the suburb 25 miles north of downtown San Diego.

A second wildfire threatened homes in the community of Tierrasanta, prompting the evacuation of area residents.

In Riverside County, crews set backfires to clear out brush near isolated homes.

"We've got a lot of people out there working really hard," Stewart said.

After 30 hours in the field, sooty-faced firefighters were playing football at Noble Park in Cherry Valley, the command post for the Riverside fires.

They were among those fighting the blaze Monday that claimed the life of Capt. Thomas Oscar Wall, 44, of the Orange County Fire Authority, who suffered a heart attack while hosing roofs in Calimesa.

Said Brian King, 20, of the U.S. Forest Service in San Diego: "On the radio last night, we heard it come over: 'Firefighter down.' It gets a little quieter. You work harder. You gotta think of the big picture."

Wall's death came less than a month after that of another firefighter who was among his closest friends. Allen Donelan, 34, died while recuperating from back surgery at a hospital in Orange. Donelan worked with Wall in a four-person crew at Station 21 in Tustin.

It was Wall who organized Donelan's funeral two weeks ago in Tustin, complete with a procession of fire engines and a flyover by firefighting helicopters. During the cortege, he walked with Donelan's widow, Cara, and was "a pillar of support" for the department in the days that followed, Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather said.

"Tom was still mourning, still grieving over the loss of his friend, and yet he pushed on for the sake of everyone else," Prather said. "He died courageously and unselfishly. He was a hero and he deserves to be remembered that way."

The Forestry Department identified the dead air tanker pilot as Gary Nagel, 62, of Columbia, Calif., a veteran of 30 years in aviation.

Nagel was an employee of San Joaquin Helicopters Inc. and was on contract with the department, working out of its air base in Fresno. His wife, Wanda, also is a contract pilot, the Forestry Department said.

The aircraft Nagel was flying, a Korean War-vintage Grumman S-2, went down at Poppet Flats while fighting the Edna fire. The twin-prop S-2 is a converted Navy patrol plane that carries 800 gallons of fire retardant.

Staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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