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Four killed battling California wildfire

Hundreds flee; authorities say blaze was set

CABAZON, Calif. -- Four firefighters were killed yesterday when a fast-moving arson fire fed by Santa Ana winds charged through the rugged, wild terrain of Riverside County, destroying homes and forcing hundreds of residents to flee.

The Esperanza fire burned more than 10,000 acres near Cabazon, 90 miles east of Los Angeles and about 20 miles northwest of Palm Springs.

Fueled by dry wood, high temperatures, and winds gusting to more than 30 miles per hour, the blaze burned out of control despite the efforts of more than 700 firefighters . The fire was reported about 1:10 a.m.

"This is an arson fire . . . A deliberately set arson fire that leads to the death of anyone constitutes murder," Chief John Hawkins told reporters. Hawkins is head of the Riverside County Fire Department, which is part of the state's fire agency.

The county will offer a $100,000 reward to find the arsonist, officials said.

Hundreds of people were evacuated . But as many as 2,000 people were stranded in a park for recreation vehicles. Hawkins said the people would be safe there.

The fire raced through the terrain, outpacing officials' ability to keep track of the damage. Yesterday morning, there were just 800 acres charred. Within eight hours, the damage had increased more than tenfold.

It was on one of those rescue efforts that a crew of five firefighters was trapped in the rapidly moving fire as they tried to flee to safety.

U S Forest Service crew 57 had its engine parked and hoses ready to defend homes when flames shot up a hill from the south and engulfed the men, according to Pat Boss of the US Forest Service.

"These winds were devil winds," Boss said. "They came out of nowhere." The wind and the flames overran the five so quickly that "they never deployed their shelters," he said.

Early reports had the crew trapped in their vehicle, but the position of the bodies later showed that they "had been running. They were fleeing for their lives . . . and the flames caught them," Boss said.

The crew had been on duty for six hours when they were overtaken by flames at 8 a.m.

Three of the firefighters died at the scene . Two others were taken by helicopter to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where one died with burns over 90 percent of his body. The fifth was on life support.

Television images showed several houses and other structures burning, but the exact number was not known.

The fierce winds that are the hallmark of Southern California's Santa Ana season are expected to continue today, creating problems for those fighting the fire. The big concern was that the fire would spread south into the San Bernardino National Forest, where dead trees would supply more fuel.

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