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Firefighters Work to Contain Fire That Has Already Killed Four and Injured One

October 27, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The latest on the California fire. NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports from the scene.

 JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: This afternoon, even as hot spots flared up, fire crews worked to dig breaks and hold the

line at the eastern edge of the Esperanza fire in Southern California’s San Jacinto Mountains.

More than 1,700 fire personnel are battling the blaze. Since early yesterday, the massive fire has scorched more than 24,000 acres outside the town of Banning in Riverside County. It’s the nation’s deadliest wildfire in five years. The flames, fueled by whipping winds, dry conditions, and high temperatures, have killed four firefighters and left a fifth critically injured.

 JEANNE WADE EVANS, Forest Supervisor, San Bernardino: They were engaging in structure protection and fire-fighting activities when they were overrun by flames. The accident investigation is ongoing. Our very deepest condolences go out to the families and friends at this very tragic time.

 JEFFREY KAYE: Rugged terrain and the unpredictable Santa Ana winds are making the job difficult, according to Captain

Julie Hutchinson with the Riverside County Fire Department.

┬áJULIE HUTCHINSON, Captain, Riverside County Fire Department: The winds are blowing very hard, 25-35 miles per hour, with gusts up to 40 and 45 miles an hour. So we have a serious condition out there in a terrain-driven fire. This is wind pushing it through terrain that is perfect for this type of fire, so it’s a challenge. We can’t control the wind.

JEFFREY KAYE: Authorities say they believe the fire was deliberately set.

JOHN HAWKINS, Chief, Riverside County Fire Department: A deliberately set arson fire that leads to the death of anyone constitutes murder.

Controlling the flames

JEFFREY KAYE: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for Riverside County, and various government agencies are offering a total of $300,000 as a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist.

After the fire began, hundreds of people were ordered to evacuate from mountain communities.

CHARLES MINER: I mean, I didn't think I'd make it out. I mean, there was flames 100 foot high blowing across the road in both directions.

LINDSEY BOUNNIE: I felt really scared, and I didn't know what to do, so I just stayed in the truck with the animals and talked to them and everything.

JEFFREY KAYE: So far nearly a dozen homes have been destroyed.

WANDA LUCERO: It's just been moving fast all day, and it's just getting closer and closer to the homes.

JEFFREY KAYE: Among the firefighters, the deaths of their colleagues have reinforced the need for caution, according to Superintendent Stan Stewart of the U.S. Forest Service.

STAN STEWART, Superintendent, U.S. Forest Service: We're probably paying more attention than normal, even though you do all the time on these type of events. You have to. You're probably a little more cautious than you normally would be.

JEFFREY KAYE: Authorities say their main goal now is to try to keep the fire away from freeways.