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Exhausted firefighters battle on

Some details of trapped fire crew's final minutes emerge. Fire heads west.

October 28, 2006|David Kelly, Louis Sahagun and Mike Anton | Times Staff Writers

Firefighters laboring with little or no sleep struggled for a second day Friday to slow an out-of-control Riverside County wildfire that moved into a sparsely populated area, while investigators hunted for the arsonist they believe set the blaze.

The Esperanza fire, which killed four U.S. Forest Service firefighters Thursday and left another on life support with severe burns, has scorched more than 39,900 acres in the rugged mountains west of Palm Springs. At least 10 homes were reported destroyed.

Gusting Santa Ana winds that fueled the fire Thursday died down overnight but returned with the sun Friday, propelling the blaze westward, toward Highway 79 south of Beaumont.

About 2,078 firefighters from 47 fire crews battled the blaze, which by nightfall was only 25% contained.

With high winds expected today, "the next 36 hours are going to be key for this thing," said Mike Giannini, battalion chief of the Marin County Fire Department.

State fire officials on Friday called in a converted DC-10 jumbo jet, based in Victorville, capable of dropping 10 times as much fire retardant as traditional firefighting aircraft. The plane used its 12,000-gallon payload to blanket tinder-dry forests and hillsides in the path of the blaze.

Firefighters ignited a small backfire in Beaumont to protect a school with about 80 special needs children less than a mile away. The children were moved to a gymnasium.

Scores of homeowners south of Banning were evacuated while hundreds of others were given the option of leaving the Silent Valley RV resort, which was encircled by flames Thursday. On Friday, helicopters snatched water from a resort pond and dropped it on hot spots flaring through the hills.

"If these firemen didn't save us in this little bowl, it could have cost the lives of 4,000 people," said Judy Brown, 69, who spent the night at the resort.

Tips come in

Meantime, authorities received scores of tips in their arson and homicide investigation but released no details.

"We're taking lots of calls," Riverside County Sheriff Sgt. Earl Quinata said. "Our investigators are looking at all the information and following up when necessary."

At least two residents in the foothills along Esperanza Avenue in Cabazon saw two white men in their early 20s leaving the area -- a popular hangout for teenagers and others -- shortly before the fire was reported about 1 a.m. Thursday.

Killed in the fire were engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild and crew members Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley remained in critical condition after undergoing surgery at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. Doctors on Friday afternoon spent an hour removing damaged and burned skin, said Jorge Valencia, spokesman for the hospital.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the hospital and met with Cerda's family.

Six firefighters also suffered injuries fighting the blaze, but further information was not released.

Details of the crew's final minutes emerged Friday as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service assembled a 30-person squad to investigate the deaths.

They were the first engine crew to arrive on a hillside in an evacuated area on San Gorgonio View Road, followed closely by three other teams. Their job was to protect a house rimmed by brush-covered hills.

About 8 a.m., flames suddenly roared up a canyon behind them.

"They heard it and started to run, and that was all they wrote," said Forest Service spokesman Pat Boss. It takes about 30 seconds to deploy the fire shelters each man carried, but they didn't have time, he said.

Forestry service firefighter John Fakehany, 32, who was a few hundred yards away trying to protect another house, said the wall of flames seemed to come out of nowhere.

"It was just embers raining everywhere and smoke everywhere and I couldn't see anything and I couldn't see what happened," Fakehany said.

Firefighters reached Loutzenhiser and Cerda first and tried to administer CPR, Boss said.

Other Forest Service firefighters in the area were pulled off the fire after the tragedy. On Friday, they gathered at a fire station near Idyllwild for a closed-door counseling session. After about 90 minutes, the men filed out, wearing sunglasses. Some embraced.

"It's a tight group," said chaplain Clem Roggenback. "Mostly young, tough, macho guys.... That is why it's often so hard to break through their shell."

Dave Goldstein, an assistant fire engineer, was close to the fatal scene. He said he felt like he was trapped "in a bad dream ... I feel saved and lucky, almost as though I have some other purpose."

In the hard-hit hamlet of Twin Pines, residents trickled back to see what remained. Except for one wall and a chimney, little was left of Ty Reddish's home.

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