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Reward doubled in deadly California arson fire

Written by: Staff

LOS ANGELES, Oct 28 (Reuters) A deadly arson fire in rugged mountains near Palm Springs burned out of control for a second day, forcing dozens more people to flee their homes to escape a 15-mile wall of flames.

The fire has roared through more than 24,000 acres, killing four firefighters and leaving another on life support. A reward for information about those who set the fire was doubled yesterday to 200,000 dollars.

Officials have not said why they are treating the fire as arson and the deaths as murder. The Los Angeles Times yesterday quoted people as saying they had seen teenagers smoking marijuana around midnight Thursday near where the fire is thought to have started about 17 miles northwest of Palm Springs.

Doctors said the prognosis for the injured fireman, named as Pablo Cerda, 23, was poor. Cerda has 90 per cent burns, kidney failure and severe lung damage.

''His degree of burns is one of the most severe I have seen,'' Dr. David Wong, chief trauma specialist at the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, told reporters.

Firefighters roused about 100 people in the middle of the night and told them to leave as the fire briefly threatened a community near the town of Banning. ''It was very scary,'' Shari Dage, one of those evacuated, told reporters.

They joined another 700 who left hurriedly on Thursday, leaving belongings and even some pets behind. At least 10 buildings were destroyed.

Some watched helplessly on television as their houses burned to the ground. ''It was a real sinking feeling,'' said Duane Sage, who was in nearby Palm Springs when the blaze started. ''I was thinking about remodeling, but not quite like this,'' he told ABC7 television.

Another 400 to 1,000 people spent a tense night trapped by smoke and flames in a recreational vehicle park in the San Jacinto mountains. No injuries were reported and Riverside County Fire Dept spokeswoman Julie Hutchinson said firefighters were hoping to get them out.

Weather forecasters expected another day of hot Santa Ana winds, gusting up to 45 mph, throughout tinder dry southern California.

''The wind and Mother Nature is one thing we can't control out there,'' Hutchinson said.

The fire is expected to take days to bring under control but firefighters said yesterday the flames appeared headed to steep and rugged terrain without a lot of homes.

The blaze was the deadliest for the firefighting community since 2001, when four firefighters were killed in Washington state.

But it 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.

Reuters DKS VP0440

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