BEAUMONT, Calif, Oct 28: Thick smoke and hot winds hampered firefighters struggling to get the upper hand on a deadly wildfire in mountains near Palm Springs, California, while the reward for information on those who started it rose to 500,000 dollar.
Four firefighters died and a fifth was on life support with burns over 90 per cent of his body after being engulfed by the blaze on Thursday. By nightfall it had consumed 39,900 acres and was 25 per cent contained, Riverside County Fire Dept officials said yesterday.
Fire officials are treating the blaze as arson and the deaths as murder but have not detailed their reasons. A reward rose from 100,000 dollars to 500,000 dollars yesterday after contributions from the local Morongo Indian tribe, county officials, California state coffers and a private donation.
The Los Angeles Times quoted local residents as saying they had seen teenagers smoking marijuana near where the fire is thought to have started about 27 km northwest of Palm Springs.
Weather forecasters expected at least another 24 hours of seasonal Santa Ana winds, gusting up to 72 kph, throughout tinder dry southern California.
The 24 km wall of flames was expected to take days to bring under full control despite extra crews bringing the number of firefighters up to more than 2,000.
''When the Santa Ana winds blow, all bets are off and it is very difficult to predict,'' Riverside County Fire Dept Chief John Hawkins told KCAL9 television.
Billowing clouds of acrid smoke made it difficult for water tankers and helicopters to operate for much of yesterday.
Doctors said the prognosis for the injured fireman, Pablo Cerda, 23, was poor. In addition to burns, Cerda had kidney failure and severe lung damage.
RESIDENTS FLEE FLAMES
Meanwhile more than 700 people who were forced to flee on Thursday waited anxiously with friends or at rescue centers for news of their homes. At least 10 buildings have been destroyed but the number was expected to rise. Neil Garner, a dog breeder whose Twin Pines home was in the heart of the blaze, said he had less than an hour to get out. He took his 20 dogs but had to leave nine horses behind.
''I drove about half a mile and I started meeting people ahead of me saying 'We can't get out. The fire's across the road','' Garner said. ''It was a good 30- to 40-foot tall fire. The wind was hurricane force.'' ''One of the fire crews that passed us was the crew that didn't make it,'' he said. The five firefighters were engulfed in flames while trying to protect a house -- a vacation home which Garner said was empty.
Donna Bledsoe tried to drive to safety but had to turn back and took refuge in a recreational vehicle park higher up the San Jacinto mountains. ''We were too afraid because of the winds. The railings were on fire, the (road) signs were on fire,'' she said. ''There was a rabbit on the highway, dead and frozen like a statue.'' Neither Bledsoe nor Garner knew when they might be allowed back to see the state of the homes they abandoned.
Some 1,000 people who spent a tense night trapped in the recreational vehicle park were allowed to leave yesterday.
The blaze has yet to wreak the destruction of October 2003, when wildfires burned for days in mountains outside Los Angeles and near San Diego, killing 24 people, destroying more than 3,000 homes and burning some 740,000 acres.