BEAUMONT, Calif. – As flames roared through the canyons of Southern California, authorities increased the reward to $500,000 Friday for the arrest of the arsonist responsible for the deaths of four firefighters in the nation's worst such tragedy in five years.
A fifth firefighter lay in grave condition with burns over 90 percent of his body.
Firefighters labored through thick smoke as curtains of wind-whipped orange flame pushed through uninhabited brushland about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The blaze that broke out Thursday destroyed about 10 structures, including homes, forced 700 people to flee, and flushed coyotes and other wildlife into the open.
Investigators have not said how they know the 62-square-mile blaze was arson, how it was set, or why. But they said those responsible could face murder charges.
Two young men were seen leaving the area where the fire broke out about 1 a.m. Thursday. Also, investigators said they were looking into whether the wildfire was related to other blazes in recent months, including a canyon fire last weekend.
More than 2,070 firefighters worked to corral the advancing flames and a DC-10 jet capable of dropping 12,000-gallon loads of retardant joined a fleet of firefighting helicopters and airtankers. Winds gusted to 45 mph but kept the flames moving through undeveloped land, away from homes in Riverside County. Mop-up work was under way back in the mountain communities where the flames swept through the previous day. Hundreds of people were allowed to leave an RV park where they had taken refuge, and many other families were able to return to their homes. About 400 people remained evacuated Friday evening. The blaze was 25 percent contained, officials said.
The U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed on Thursday when the wind blew a wall of flames down on them in the hills near Palm Springs as they tried to protect a home.
It was the worst disaster involving firefighters battling a wildfire since 2001, when four firefighters were trapped by flames and killed in Washington state.
James Pence, 63, said that shortly after the fire started in the town of Cabazon, he saw two unfamiliar young men leaving the area, which he said is close to a teenage hangout known as Raccoon Rock. "These kids didn't belong here. They were strange people," Pence said.
Tim Bowers, 49, said he was awakened by his dog, looked outside his trailer and saw flames on a hillside about 100 yards away. He said two unfamiliar young men walked away from the fire.
"I looked at them. They looked at me. Then they turned their heads and kept walking," Bowers said. The two were gone by the time he alerted an arriving firefighter, he said.
Sheriff's detectives interviewed the Cabazon trailer park neighbors and fielded about 100 tips.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger added $100,000 in state money to a reward already posted by Riverside County for information leading to the arsonist. San Bernardino County and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which has a casino, added another $200,000. A Rancho Mirage resident, Tim Blixseth also donated $100,000, bringing the total to $500,000.
The U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry were also investigating the firefighters' deaths, gathering information on weather, topography and fuel. They interviewed firefighters who were nearby and retrieved information from dispatch tapes.
Michael Wakowski, a fire division chief in the San Bernardino National Forest, said it did not appear the crew did anything wrong.
"Sometimes things go bad, I hate to say," he said.
Investigators were also looking into whether the fire was related to a 40-acre blaze on Sunday in nearby Mias Canyon. "There's been a lot of fires in this area all summer long. You can connect the dots," Wakowski said.
Killed were engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44; engine operator Jess McLean, 27; assistant engine operator Jason McKay, 27; and firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20. Another crewmember, Pablo Cerda, 23, was in grave condition.
"I think they should get the death penalty for this," a neighbor of McLean's in Beaumont, Marlene Lopez, said of whoever set the fire.
The school attended by three of Loutzenhiser's five children canceled a talent show because of the tragedy. "As I've told my staff, they have been devastated," said Principal Emily Shaw. "Mark was entwined in every part of school life here."