Thursday, October 26, 2006

SoCal on fire... again

It's in Cabazon, the Desert area about 20 miles from Palm Springs.

CABAZON, Calif. - A wildfire driven by hot Santa Ana winds killed three firefighters trapped in their engine, critically injured two others and drove hundreds of people from homes Thursday as it swept through the desert hills northwest of Palm Springs.

The firefighters were trying to protect a house from the 4,000-acre wildfire when the flames engulfed the engine, said Pat Boss, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

Looking at the map to the left, Cabazon is in between Banning and Palm Springs right there near the Interstate 10. Here in Temecula it basically looks like the apocalypse is here. The sky is brown with all the smoke. Coworkers who live out towards Palm Springs say wind gusts were up to 75 mph out by the fire. A Red Flag Warning has been issued for all of Riverside County due to high winds and low humidity. I've also heard reports of fires further south in the Anza Borrego Desert (large green area cut off at the bottom of the image) and the Perris/Sun City area. I'll try to confirm those and get some pictures of the smoke in the area on my lunch.

UPDATE @ 1:42pm: Yahoo story linked above also mentions 400 people trapped in a RV park off highway 243. All were quickly rushed to safety as the fire surrounded the park. **revised** All are still trapped at the RV park, but do have firefighters with them and are in contact with authorities outside the burn area.

UPDATE @ 1:50pm: Here's some pictures of the smoky conditions from my home in Temecula, about 50 miles away from Cabazon. You'll notice the sky's about the same color as the road. You'd think it was dusk or sunset not shortly before 1pm in the afternoon. The first one is from my driveway looking in the opposite direction (west to the coast). We're seeing the ash falling here too...

UPDATE @ 2:02pm: Local TV news reports put the fire at just over 13 hours old, 4,500 acres burned, and firefighters have no containment on it as of yet.

UPDATE @ 2:06pm: LATimes says a fourth firefighter has died.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters that three firefighters were killed fighting the blaze. The U.S. Forest Service confirmed the deaths, adding that two firefighters were critically injured.

One of the injured died later at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff/Coroner's Office.

The firefighters were trapped in their fire engine when high winds suddenly pushed the flames over them, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Pat Boss told the Associated Press.

700 area residents have been evacuated, 700 firefighters are currently battling the blaze. Estimates say the fire could end up consuming 25,000 acres before it's all said and done.

UPDATE @ 2:19pm: Evacuation centers have been set up at the Banning Community Center (789 N. San Gorgonio Ave.) and Hemet High School (41701 Stetson Ave.)

UPDATE @ 2:21pm: Another map of the fire area...

UPDATE @ 3:01pm: The ABC "Video on Demand" on the right hand side of this link is a news conference that makes a strong case for arson on this fire. It is LIVE NEWS CONFERENCE, so tune in... They're pissed about this arson, and make no apologies for it.

UPDATE @ 3:13pm: ABC7 Live News Conference finished at above link finished.

UPDATE @ 3:45pm: Anyone with arson tips is instructed to call 951-922-7116.

UPDATE @ 4:00pm: Authorities are offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of the arsonist.

UPDATE @ 10/27 9:00am: A smokey sunset...

UPDATE @ 10/27 10:33am: Latest fire stats... burned 24,000 acres (about 38 square miles), fire officials expected to have 3,000 firefighters on the scene by midnight last night, parts of Banning had to be evacuated last night, crews are concerned about the Santa Ana winds shifting which could push the fire east to Palm Springs or south to Hemet, and the fire is reported to be only 5% contained.

There is still a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the arsonist. If you have information please call 951-922-7116. The firefighters who died when trying to save a home when the fire shifted and overtook them and their truck are engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, of Idyllwild; engine operator Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; assistant engine operator Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto. A fifth firefighter, Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, is in critical condition with burns over 95% of his body. Please keep all the firefighters, their friends, and families in your prayers.

UPDATE @ 10/27 2:56pm: Reward is upped to $300,000. Total acreage burned is at 24,000 and at least 10 structures have been destroyed.

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.

UPDATE @ 10/27 4:41pm: Reward's been increased to $400,000.

UPDATE @ 10/28 11:35am: The fire has currently burned nearly 40,000 acres (almost 62 square miles, but thanks to cooler temperatures and less winds the fire is currently 40% contained. The reward for information leading to the arsonist's arrest has increased again to $500,000.

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