BEAUMONT, Calif. – Firefighters aided by dying winds appeared to be winning the battle Sunday against a 63-square-mile wildfire that killed four of their own and destroyed more than 30 homes.
The blaze, which burned 40,200 acres, was 85 percent contained four days after blowtorch gusts overran a U.S. Forest Service crew. Four members were killed and a fifth was left clinging to life with burns over most of his body.
The blaze, which authorities say was set by an arsonist, was still threatening a wilderness area plagued by drought and filled with dead trees. But fire officials were confident that if they could keep the fire out of that area, they could have the blaze under control by Monday night and began sending home several hundred firefighters.
"It's the bottom of the ninth, so we want to make sure we hit it out of the park and win this thing," said Mike Wakoski, an incident commander for the Forest Service.
As firefighters were getting the upper hand on that blaze, another broke out Sunday in Warner Springs, about 70 miles northeast of San Diego. That fire began about noon and quickly blackened about 100 acres, forcing the evacuation of several homes, said Capt. David Janssen of the California Department of Forestry.
More than 200 firefighters, five helicopters and an air tanker rushed to the scene to save about 14 homes in the blaze's path, which was moving east toward the Los Coyotes Indian reservation. The cause was under investigation. One firefighter was injured, though his condition was unclear Sunday afternoon.
Church vigils were held across Southern California on Sunday for the families of the four firefighters who were killed and for firefighter Pablo Cerda, who was badly injured. Cerda, 23, was still in critical condition Sunday after surgery Friday to remove damaged skin.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he attended one of the services before stopping by a fire command center in Beaumont on Sunday afternoon to offer words of encouragement to the more than 2,800 firefighters on the front lines.
"It makes me, as governor, really proud to know that we have the best of the best firefighters and law enforcement people in the world working to put this fire out," he said.
Fire officials were still concerned Sunday with the blaze's eastern 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.
The weather could play a role in their stand there. Unless there is a return of the Santa Ana winds, which quickly whipped the fire out of control on Thursday, firefighters expect to surround the last of the blaze quickly. Investigators believe it was such a gust that engulfed the firefighters Thursday.
In all, the fire has destroyed 54 structures — the 34 homes and 20 other buildings.
The fire was set shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday at the base of a slope in the desert city of Cabazon, about 10 miles northwest of Palm Springs.
Cabazon residents said they saw two young men leaving the fire's ignition point, and authorities quickly declared it an act of arson. They have withheld details of any evidence they have, but have acknowledged receiving hundreds of tips.
"We're keeping a real tight lid on the investigation," said Michael Jarvis, a forestry department spokesman. "We're just asking people to call in with their tips."
While fire crews made progress on the blaze, evacuees began returning to their homes over the weekend, often to find nothing left. They were allowed in only briefly on Saturday and Sunday to retrieve belongings and feed or remove pets.
Carol Hurley stood Saturday at the still-smoldering wreckage of a neighbor's house in Twin Pines but couldn't bear to look at what was left of her dream home.
"I'm not ready to see it," said Hurley, 68. "I just want to remember it like it was."
Three of her children and a grandson dug through piles of concrete searching for jewelry and other valuables but found little more than a blackened fork and knife and remnants of her china.