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Deaths prompted billionaire's pledge

Timber tycoon, having reason to relate, upped the reward in the arson investigation.

October 31, 2006|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Billionaire Tim Blixseth knows what it's like to lose both a friend and a home to fire.

Fifteen years ago, he lost a dog and baby pictures and other family mementos at his Rancho Mirage home to unforgiving flames in a house fire. Last week, he was mourning the loss of a close friend in Montana who died when a gas leak caused an explosion in her home.

So when it came to helping investigators track down whoever set the Esperanza fire last week in Riverside County, which killed four U.S. Forest Service firefighters and critically burned another, Blixseth opened his wallet, hoping he'd inspire others to do the same.

On Friday, he matched Riverside County's $100,000 reward for information leading to conviction of those responsible, bringing the reward fund's total to $550,000, after pledges from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, San Bernardino County and the state and federal governments.

"The role that my wife and I play in this is showing that it's OK to give. Somebody has to step up and make the challenge to the rest," said Blixseth, 56, from his ranch in Rancho Mirage.

The next step, he said, is to raise more money for the families of the four fallen firefighters.

Though Blixseth is not a household name like Microsoft founder Bill Gates or the ubiquitous Donald Trump, the timber baron is no stranger to charitable causes. Blixseth was the spark plug behind efforts to raise reward money toward capturing the Washington, D.C.-area snipers. Thanks to tipsters, the two shooters were apprehended after a three-week rampage in October 2002 of long-range rifle fire that mortally wounded 10 people.

Blixseth, who had a boyhood dream of becoming a singer and songwriter, also wrote a song with his wife, Edra, that became the anthem for NBC's Hurricane Katrina fundraising campaign, which has brought in more than $120 million to rebuild homes. The song, "Heart of America," featured the vocal talents of Michael McDonald, Wynonna Judd and Eric Benet.

A minister's son who grew up on welfare and made his entrepreneurial debut selling donkeys at 18, Blixseth is worth roughly $1.2 billion today and is listed among Forbes magazine's 400 richest Americans. The Blixseth Group Inc. is a diversified empire concentrating mostly on timber and real estate.

"My initial reaction was, how could somebody be so stupid?" Blixseth said. "They were probably some kids that are firebugs. Yet there's a family with five kids without a dad tonight, so you have to make examples of these things so that the next kid, or adult, that thinks about doing this thinks twice."

Blixseth and his wife wanted the reward to be enticing.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people are driven by money instead of doing the right thing," he said.

As for the firefighters' families, Blixseth said he's considering a challenge drive, motivating others to donate and then matching it.

Last week, the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians and the tribe's casino donated $100,000 to the fallen firefighters' families.

The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians announced its own contribution of $50,000 for the families.

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sara.lin@latimes.com

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