SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – As witnesses watched in horror, the wings of an air tanker battling a California wildfire Monday tore off in midair and the plane hurtled to the ground, killing all three crew members in a fiery explosion.
Hours later, another fire surrounded crews in Southern California, injuring three and shutting down Interstate 15, the main road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
In all, fire crews are fighting 20 large blazes in 11 states, and the traditional fire season has only begun.
"These things happening in the middle of June do not bode well for the remainder of the year," said Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry's San Bernardino unit.
The Northern California fire, near Yosemite National Park, destroyed at least one home and forced 400 people to evacuate as it consumed some 10,000 acres of brush and forest land near the small mountain resort town of Walker.
The C-130 transport battling the fire had just made a pass over the fire when it went up in flames Monday. TV news video showed the aircraft's wings catching fire, then falling off as the plane spiraled into the ground. It erupted in a giant ball of fire and smoke.
"I'm standing here looking at the tail section," Mike Mandichak, who owns an auto shop 150 feet from the crash site, said by telephone. "My shop is right next door. It almost hit it."
Other aircraft were immediately grounded.
Hours later in Southern California, three firefighters suffered first- and second-degree burns to their hands, elbows and noses when flames engulfed the two engines they were using as the vehicles were parked on a highway.
One of the firefighters managed to deploy an emergency shelter as the heat from the flames peeled the paint off of their trucks.
They were listed in good condition at Arrowhead Regional Hospital, where they were hospitalized for evaluation, said Peters.
The firefighters near San Bernardino suffered first- and second-degree burns to their hands, elbows, and noses, said Peters. He said all three were listed in good condition at Arrowhead Regional Hospital.
The blaze shut down Interstate 15, the main route connecting Las Vegas to Southern California, causing traffic snags for hours. Late Monday night, the southbound side of the interstate was reopened, but the northbound lanes remained closed indefinitely, as ash rained down on the area.
"A lot of people are terrified," said Perry Van, 42, of Pinon Hills, about 10 miles west of the fire.
The blaze blackened about 5,500 acres of brush and forest land and destroyed one structure as it burned right down to the edge of the interstate in some areas. It was only 15 percent contained late Monday night, but had moved away from homes, and people who had been evacuated earlier were allowed to return.
In southwestern Colorado a 26,700-acre fire near Durango forced the evacuation of 700 homes Monday. Since Saturday, residents have left 1,700 homes in the hills north of town, and at least one home has burned.
This weather and the fuels out there are not helping at all," fire information officer Mary Bell Lunsford said.
Forty miles southwest of Denver, the largest wildfire in the state's history also continued to burn. The blaze, which began June 8, has blackened 103,000 acres and destroyed 25 homes. Authorities say it was set accidentally by a U.S. Forest Service worker who appeared in court Monday on charges related to starting the fire.
As the fire flared up again Monday, authorities called for the evacuation of about 100 homes west of Colorado Springs — dispiriting news for 5,400 people across the area who are still waiting to go home.
"We can see our home from the highway and we can see that it's OK, but we can't go there. We drive up and down the road six or seven times a day to see it," said Harold Petersen, who sat outside his motor home with his wife, Christy, keeping a close eye on the flames.
The couple moved from Colorado Springs into a home near Lake George about a year ago. "Our dream was always to live in the mountains," Christy Petersen said. "We're going to stay even if it's black as black. I don't want to go back to the cement city."
Bob Robinson, who lives on a 120-acre ranch about three miles from Lake George, said he worked hard to reduce fire danger on his land, clearing pine and installing a fireproof roof. He was frustrated that the surrounding forest hadn't received similar treatment.
"People won't let the Forest Service do its job," he said. "They won't let them cut trees. They won't let them manage the forest and that's the main reason we are having so many wildfires this year."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.