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`Devil Winds' Stoke Fatal Fire

A Forest Service crew can't outrun a wall of flames.

4 Killed, 1 Badly Burned

Arson-caused blaze chars 24,000 acres.

October 27, 2006|David Kelly, Jonathan Abrams and Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writers

TWIN PINES, CALIF. — Four firefighters were killed and another critically burned Thursday as they battled to protect homes from a wind-whipped arson fire that charred almost 24,000 acres and forced hundreds to flee mountain communities west of Palm Springs.

The U.S. Forest Service crew members were manning hoses on a mountain road about 8 a.m. when a burst of wind sent flames shooting over them so quickly they had no time to deploy portable fire shelters.

"These winds were devil winds. They came out of nowhere," said Pat Boss, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. "They were fleeing for their lives ... and the flames caught them."

Authorities said the fire was set shortly after 1 a.m. southeast of Cabazon. Fueled by Santa Ana winds and tinder-dry vegetation, it quickly raced south into the mountains.

Three of the firefighters died at the scene near San Gorgonio View Road, north of Twin Pines off Highway 243. Two were taken by helicopter to the burn unit at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, where one succumbed from burns that covered his body.

"This is one of my toughest days in my 25 years as a trauma surgeon," said Dr. Dev Gnanadev, the hospital's medical director. "Never have we had this many great men get involved in so large an accident."

The sole survivor has burns over 90% of his body and severe lung injuries, and was placed on life support, Gnanadev said. "The chances of survival are low," he said.

Four of the crew, based in the mountain community of Idyllwild, each had five to 25 years of experience. One was in his first season.

They "did everything professionally," Boss said. "They just turned around and the wind blew over them, and it just caught them as a whirlwind."

The firefighters and their mangled truck were found in a remote canyon area, off a winding dirt road. Members of another fire crew nearby radioed for help but had no time to rescue their colleagues.

Shortly after the deaths, officials pulled the other six forestry crews off the wildfire's front line, giving them a moment to reflect on the loss.

Thursday's death toll was the highest for California's wild land firefighting community in nearly three decades. In 1979, four state forestry department firefighters were killed when flames overtook them as they walked a bulldozed fire line near San Luis Obispo. The most firefighter deaths in a California wildfire occurred in 1933, when 25 firefighters were killed fighting a Griffith Park blaze.

Thursday's mountain blaze, known as the Esperanza fire, forced some 500 residents to evacuate from the remote communities of Twin Pines, Poppet Flats and Silent Valley. Hundreds of homes were threatened.

By Thursday night, fire crews had the blaze 5% contained, thanks in part to the Santa Ana winds dying down at nightfall. The head of the fire was still pushing west toward Lamb Canyon, chewing through high brush in a patch of remote, sparsely populated foothills south of Beaumont and Interstate 10.

Fire officials said the blaze, which stretched for 15 miles, destroyed 10 structures in the Twin Pines area.

Earlier in the day, the fire trapped several hundred people for more than eight hours in the Silent Valley recreational vehicle park. A small army of firefighters circled the park to keep the flames at bay, and by afternoon the danger had subsided, allowing residents to leave the park if they wished.

"We couldn't evacuate them in time," said John Hawkins, fire chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Riverside County. "They're going to encounter heat, smoke -- but they're probably going to be OK. There are firefighters with those people."

About 1,000 firefighters battled the blaze, with only limited access because of the steep, rugged terrain in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains. Airplanes and helicopters dropped water and fire retardant in an attempt to bring it under control.

Harrowing darkness

Throughout the day, strong, dry winds rumbled like earthquakes, feeding the fire and pushing it southwest. Trees and brush burst into flames. Balls of flame rolled across roads where people were trying to escape, forcing cars to retreat. Dense smoke made visibility impossible at times.

For the firefighters, conditions in the predawn hours Thursday had been even more harrowing. There was no electricity, so roads and buildings had no light, and the air was choked with smoke -- pitch black and chaotic is how residents described the scene.

"I even backed into a tree in my frontyard, and I've lived here for years," said Wayne Meeks, a Twin Pines resident.

Half a dozen homes along Twin Pines Road were burning at midday, and the road was littered with charred rabbits and birds.

"Oh my God, oh my God," said Lori Cornell as she walked toward her smoldering home. "I thought it might bypass us. I've never seen anything like this."

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