POPPET FLAT — A wind-whipped wildfire started by an arsonist killed four firefighters Thursday and stranded up to 400 people in an RV park when flames burned to the edge of the only road out, officials said.
“Everybody is hunkered down here. They’re fighting the fire around us. It’s across the street from us,” said Charles Van Brunt, a ranger at the station at the entrance to Silent Valley Club, the recreational vehicle park near Palm Springs. The residents were in no immediate danger, he said.
Authorities asked people in the RV park to stay put to leave the roads clear for firefighters. Hundreds of others in the area were forced from their homes.
Fire officials said the fire was deliberately set around 1 a.m. and had blackened 10,000 acres within 12 hours. Fire Chief John Hawkins said the arson “constitutes murder.”
It was the deadliest wildfire firefighting disaster in the United States since July 10, 2001, when four firefighters were killed in Washington’s Okanogan National Forest. They died after becoming trapped by flames on a dusty dead-end road in a remote canyon.
The Forest Service crew was trying to protect a house as dry desert winds of 25 mph or more blew a wall of flames down on them in the hills northwest of Palm Springs.
“They had left their truck to do structure protection when the fire overran them,” said Forest Service spokesman Pat Boss, adding the flames came down so quickly they had no time to retreat to their engine or use protective sheltering.
Three firefighters died at the scene and two were hospitalized in critical condition. One of those two died several hours later. The other had burns over 95 percent of his body, Boss said.
Thursday’s deaths brought to 19 the number of California firefighters killed in the line of duty over the past year, according to statistics kept by California Professional Firefighters, a lobbying organization.
One other firefighter in the burned-out fire engine was critically injured, Boss said.
He said the Forest Service pulled all its personnel off the fire after the deaths so they could “gather their thoughts, say their prayers.”
Another official believed Thursday’s blaze was set just as the winds picked up in order to maximize destruction. Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle dispatched homicide detectives to the scene to work with FBI agents during the investigation.
Authorities planned to offer a $100,000 reward in the case.
The fire quickly blackened more than six square miles and destroyed at least three homes. The weather service had issued a “red flag” warning for extreme fire danger because of the high winds and dry conditions.
Thick smoke blanketed the small RV park off Highway 243, where as many as 400 people were stranded, authorities said. TV footage showed some vehicles racing through flames and smoke just before firefighters closed the road.
Van Brunt said people were advised to “watch the news and stay comfy.”
The fire started early Thursday, burning in a valley with a few scattered ranch homes. The hamlets of Poppet Ranch and Twin Pines were evacuated along with a juvenile detention center, Twin Pines Boys Ranch.
Evacuations were ordered, and by early morning, about 200 people had fled. The fire destroyed at least three homes, authorities said.
Construction contractor Charlie Miner suffered minor burns when he drove his backhoe through the flames to escape in Twin Pines. “It was so intense I was screaming,” Miner said. “Sparks were flying everywhere.”
The firefighters who were killed were members of a five-person crew based in the nearby town of Idyllwild, Boss said. Their names were not immediately released.
“I knew probably all of them,” he said. “They were very personal friends.”
As news of the deaths spread, friends stopped at the Idyllwild ranger station to express their sympathies.
“You guys are our saving grace,” said Emily Pearson, as she hugged Boss. “It shouldn’t have happened.” Pearson said she had lived in the area 35 years, and her family knew all five firefighters.
Officials worried the flames could reach an area of the San Bernardino National Forest where a bark beetle infestation had killed trees that could easily fuel a blaze.
In the valley where the fire was burning, the ground cover is mostly grass and chaparral that burns fast and hot.
“The biggest concern is if it gets over the hills,” said Becky Luther, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Fire Department. “That’s where all of the homes are.”
Timo Hargu, 61, said he rushed from his hilltop home with his two dogs after he looked out a window and saw fire burning toward him in a valley.
“The whole thing was ablaze with flame,” he said. “It was the most spectacular view. A terrible view, but spectacular.”