Southern California Wildfire Kills Four Firefighters

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More than 1,000 firefighters continue to battle a wildfire near Palm Springs, Calif., that was deliberately set. The blaze has claimed four firefighters' lives and left a fifth on life-support.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Southern California, four firefighters were killed yesterday and one is critical condition after trying to protect homes from a wind-driven wildfire there. The fire is 30 miles west of Palm Springs. It's blackened tens of thousands of acres. The U.S. Forest Service says the fire was deliberately set. Joining us from Cabazon, a town near the fire, is NPR's Carrie Kahn. Good morning.

CARRIE KAHN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Carrie, tell us what you know at this point in time about how this fire started. Obviously there's a huge reward, $100,000 reward, for an arsonist.

KAHN: That is true. Investigators, however, are not releasing a lot of information. But they say that they are sure that someone set this fire intentionally, and that happened in the early morning hours on Thursday in a rugged near here in Cabazon. They say the fire was set in such a way that the arsonist took full advantage of the hot Santa Ana wind conditions here.

Late last night, I spoke with Bill Peters of the California Department of Forestry. He says there is no doubt in investigators' minds that it is arson.

Mr. BILL PETERS (California Department of Forestry): Normally, and you get a fire this size and it's very uncommon to come right out early on in the fire and say what it is, unless it's obvious. You know, normally they'll, you now, take their time and see. But they were adamant. They - this cause was arson, bang, they were out of with it.

KAHN: And yesterday, Riverside County supervisors offered that reward that you said is up to a $100,000. They have called this arsonist a murderer. One of the supervisors got on TV yesterday and was urging residents to, quote, "turn that scum in, please." They said that investigators combed the foothill areas around where the fire began and they reportedly found half a dozen broken beer bottles, even a tube of toothpaste. So they're looking for anybody who saw anybody in this area early Thursday morning.

MONTAGNE: And tell us how those four firefighters died, and one of course in very critical condition.

KAHN: Well, the firefighters were out of their engine and they were on a ridge trying to protect the homes in the rugged mountains just west of here. A U.S. Forest Service spokesman said that the flames were just whipping around, they were very erratic, and they changed course on the five firefighters. And just -the flames came right over them. They didn't even have a chance to get back to their engine or get out any of their protective sheltering gear. Three died right at the scene there.

And the images of the charred fire engine have been shown repeatedly on TV. It's just a very eerie sight. And this is the deadliest firefighting incident for the U.S. Forest Service in the past five years.

MONTAGNE: Carrie, is it because of the Santa Ana winds - and they're known in California as the devil winds - is it because of those winds that the fire is burning so fast?

KAHN: It is. And also this rugged area in these mountains. Firefighters -officials have told me that it hasn't burned here in at least a decade. So it is very rugged terrain. It's also very, very dry. The humidity is very low. The weather is hot and those winds - so there's plenty of fuel. And with the rugged conditions they can't really get the firefighting equipment in there.

They also haven't been able to use the aircraft as much as they need because of the winds and the fear of danger for those people in the aircraft. They haven't even been able to use those big SuperScoopers, because there are no big bodies of water around here to scoop up and dump on the fire. So it's been a very difficult fire to fight.

MONTAGNE: And residents, some have been trapped. What's going on this morning about residents and evacuations?

KAHN: Hundreds have been evacuated. There were reports that there were residents in a camping ground, RV's that were trapped. They were told to stay in this camping ground. There's hundreds that have spent a very, very eerie night up there.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Cabazon, California. Thanks very much, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome, Renee.

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