“They had left their truck to do structure protection when
the fire overran them,” said Forest Service spokesman Pat Boss,
adding the flames came down so quickly they had no time to
retreat to their engine or use protective sheltering.
Three firefighters died at the scene,
and two were hospitalized in critical condition. One of those
two died several hours later. The other had burns over 95
percent of his body, Boss said.
19 killed this year in
Thursday’s deaths brought to 19 the number of
California firefighters killed in the line of duty over the past
year, according to statistics kept by California Professional
Firefighters, a lobbying organization.
Boss said the Forest Service pulled all
its personnel off the fire after the deaths so they could
“gather their thoughts, say their prayers.”
Another official believed Thursday’s
blaze was set just as the winds picked up in order to maximize
destruction. Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle dispatched
homicide detectives to the scene to work with FBI agents during
Authorities planned to offer a $100,000
reward in the case.
The fire quickly burned more than six
square miles and destroyed at least three homes. The weather
service had issued a “red flag” warning for extreme fire danger
because of the high winds and dry conditions.
RV park besieged by smoke,
Thick smoke blanketed the small RV park off Highway
243, where as many as 400 people were stranded, authorities
said. TV footage showed some vehicles racing through flames and
smoke just before firefighters closed the road.
Van Brunt said people were advised to
“watch the news and stay comfy.”
The fire started early Thursday,
burning in a valley with a few scattered ranch homes. The
hamlets of Poppet Ranch and Twin Pines were evacuated along with
a juvenile detention center, Twin Pines Boys Ranch.
Evacuations were ordered, and by early
morning, about 200 people had fled. The fire destroyed at least
three homes, authorities said.
Construction contractor Charlie Miner
suffered minor burns when he drove his backhoe through the
flames to escape in Twin Pines. “It was so intense I was
screaming,” Miner said. “Sparks were flying everywhere.”
The firefighters who were killed were
members of a five-person crew based in the nearby town of
Idyllwild, Boss said. Their names were not immediately released.
“I knew probably all of them,” he said.
“They were very personal friends.”
As news of the deaths spread, friends
stopped at the Idyllwild ranger station to express their
“You guys are our saving grace,” said
Emily Pearson, as she hugged Boss. “It shouldn’t have happened.”
Pearson said she had lived in the area 35 years, and her family
knew all five firefighters.
Fears for the forest
Officials worried the flames could reach an area of
the San Bernardino National Forest where a bark beetle
infestation had killed trees that could easily fuel a blaze.
In the valley where the fire was
burning, the ground cover is mostly grass and chaparral that
burns fast and hot.
“The biggest concern is if it gets over
the hills,” said Becky Luther, a spokeswoman for the Riverside
County Fire Department. “That’s where all of the homes are.”
Timo Hargu, 61, said he rushed from his
hilltop home with his two dogs after he looked out a window and
saw fire burning toward him in a valley.
“The whole thing was ablaze with
flame,” he said. “It was the most spectacular view. A terrible
view, but spectacular.”