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A deliberately set wildfire that killed four firefighters near Palm Springs Thursday (Oct. 26) reportedly trapped up to 400 people in a recreational vehicle park in the area, officials told the Associated Press.
The fire, which blocked the only road out of the RV park as it burned 10,000 acres, was started by an arsonist, said John Hawkins of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention’s Riverside County Fire Department.
“This is an arson fire,” Hawkins told reporters Thursday. “An arson fire that leads to the death of anyone constitutes murder.”
Fire officials said the fire was set around 1 a.m. and they offered a $100,000 reward.
The blaze killed the firefighters as they tried to protect a house as hot Santa Ana winds drove flames through the desert hills northwest of Palm Springs and forced hundreds of people from their homes.
“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.
One other firefighter in the fire engine was critically injured, officials reported.
Meanwhile, as many as 400 people were trapped in the RV park when Highway 243 was blocked, authorities said. TV footage showed some vehicles racing through flames and smoke just before firefighters closed the road.
The fires 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 high winds — 25 mph or more — and dry conditions.
The blazes were started 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 left their homes, fire Capt. Julie Hutchinson said.
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 fires were burning, the ground cover is mostly grass and chaparral that burns hot and quickly.
“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.”