California Blaze 90 Percent Contained, but Still Threatens Region

Firefighters believed they were within range of corralling a 63-square-mile wildfire that claimed four lives and 34 homes in a run that has been both brief and fierce.

The fire, which authorities believe was deliberately set, still threatened wilderness plagued by drought and filled with dead trees, but fire officials were confident they could get the blaze under control by Monday evening.

"The weather has shifted in a very, very favorable way," Capt. Don Camp, a California Department of Forestry spokesman, said early Monday. "The winds are mostly gone and we're getting an onshore flow that's keeping the temperatures down."

The favorable conditions helped firefighters contain 90 percent of the fire by Sunday night. Since it started around 1 a.m. Thursday, the fire has burned 40,200 acres northwest of Palm Springs.

Hundreds of evacuated residents were able to return to their homes briefly Sunday to collect belongings, retrieve necessary medicines and check on animals. Many found little to come home to.

"There's nothing left, just a couple of walls and rubble," said Oscar Pineiro, 52, who returned to his Twin Pines house with his wife only to find it in ruins.

Camp said there was no timetable when the burned out neighborhoods would be livable again.

"Our goal is to get people back in their homes as quickly as possible, but until we're sure that it's safe, people are unfortunately going to be displaced," he said.

Fire officials were still concerned with the blaze's southeastern flank, which borders a wilderness area that hasn't burned in more than 30 years and has been devastated by a bark beetle infestation that has killed hundreds of trees.

"This is the only place the infrared shows any activity at all. This is also the place with the heaviest fuels we have," said fire analyst Timothy Chavez.

If the Santa Ana winds that quickly whipped the fire out of control on Thursday morning stay away, firefighters expect to surround the last of the blaze quickly.

But a shift in the winds could change everything, as it did last week when a gust pushed a wall of flames around five firefighters who were trying to protect a house. Four of the firefighter died, while another remained hospitalized with serious burns over most of his body.

Pablo Cerda, 23, remained in critical condition Monday. He underwent surgery Friday to remove damaged skin.

About 50 of Cerda's relatives gathered at the hospital, praying for Cerda.

"They want everyone to know that Pablo's dream was to help people, and on Thursday morning, that's just what he was doing — protecting and serving," said Eddie Cortez, a family spokesman.

Vigils were held at several Southern California churches and fire stations for Cerda and to pray for the families of the fallen firefighters.

More than 225 tips have been received by local police regarding the arson investigation, said Sheriff Bob Doyle.

Residents of the desert city of Cabazon, about 10 miles northwest of Palm Springs, where the fire is believed to have been set, said they saw two young men leaving the fire's ignition point.

"We're keeping a real tight lid on the investigation," said Michael Jarvis, a California Department of Forestry spokesman. "We're just asking people to call in with their tips."

Another blaze broke out Sunday in Warner Springs and blackened about 100 acres. That fire forced the evacuation of about 100 homes in the rural community about 70 miles northeast of San Diego.

More than 200 firefighters, five helicopters and an air tanker rushed to the scene to defend about 14 homes in the path of the fire, which was moving east toward the Los Coyotes Indian reservation. It was 5 percent contained late Sunday.