Calif. Blaze Spreads After Firefighters' Deaths

By Sonya Geis and John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 28, 2006

BANNING, Calif., Oct. 27 -- A wildfire that has consumed thousands of acres west of Palm Springs and has killed four U.S. Forest Service firefighters continued to roar Friday, fed by hot, fast and dry winds, while state and local officials boosted the reward to $500,000 to find the suspected arsonist who ignited the blaze.

The Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are investigating the deaths, and on Friday a half-dozen investigators wearing yellow protective suits studied the steep dirt driveway of 15400 Gorgonio View Rd. As a fierce wind whipped past the gutted house on a blackened hill above them, an investigator knelt down, then gestured at the canyon wall, from where the flames had come.

Five Forest Service firefighters were trying to protect the house from the wildfire Thursday when the inferno suddenly overwhelmed them. Three died at the scene, and a fourth died soon afterward at a hospital. On Friday the fifth remained in grave condition, with more than 95 percent of his body burned.

The deaths constituted the worst disaster involving a wildfire since 2001, when four firefighters were trapped by flames and killed in a remote part of Washington state.

On Friday, investigators, as well as the men's families and colleagues, struggled to understand how an experienced fire captain and his crew could have been killed.

"They had a real good, experienced crew," said Jerry Garcia, 29, a firefighter who worked with Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, and Jess McLean, 27, a fire engine operator. "I've been with them on fires, and I felt real safe with them."

McLean, Garcia said, "was someone I really looked up to. Last season was my first season, and I really trusted him."

The doomed firemen were outside their fire engine, apparently running, when flames caught up with them, said Pat Boss, a Forest Service spokesman. Firefighters carry protective shelters, similar to pup tents, that can shield them from flames, but they did not use them, Boss said.

"They had no time to deploy anything, much less even pull it out of their bag," he said. "They had no idea what hit them."

Also killed were Jason McKay, 27, and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20.

Michael Wakowski, a fire division chief in the San Bernardino National Forest, told the Associated Press it did not appear the crew did anything wrong.

"Sometimes things go bad, I hate to say," he said.

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