California Sets 400,000 Dollar Reward for Capture of Arsonist

A firefighting air tanker drops fire retardant at the deadly Esperanza Fire in the San Jacinto Mountains near Banning, California, west of Palm Springs

California has offered 400,000 dollars for the capture of an arsonist behind a blaze that killed four firemen and has scorched more than 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares) east of Los Angeles.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for the desert region swept by the wildfire whipped up by strong, gusting winds, and set a state reward for the arsonist of 100,000 dollars, subsequently increased to a total of 400,000 dollars by the neighboring counties of Riverside and San Bernardino, the site of the blaze.

"The fires continue to expand and create a situation of extreme peril for the firefighters, the residents and the businesses of the county," Schwarzenegger's office said in a statement declaring the state of emergency Friday.

"The situation is beyond the capability and control of the county," it added, noting high winds fanning the flames which are threatening residences and commercial buildings. Only five percent of the fire had been controlled Friday despite the efforts of some 1,750 firefighters.

Authorities said the fire was deliberately set early Thursday in the scrub forest desert 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.

Four firemen died and one was severely burned when a fire engine and its five-man crew got caught in an inferno of rapidly shifting flames shooting up to 100 feet (30 meters) high on Thursday.

The survivor remains on life support in hospital with burns on 95 percent of his body.

"These winds were devil winds. They came out of nowhere," Pat Boss, a US Forest Service spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times. "They were fleeing for their lives ... and the flames caught them."

"It's a very sad day for California," Schwarzenegger said in the state capital Sacramento on Thursday.

Officials said the deaths could be considered homicide. "This is a deliberately set arson fire. A deliberate arson fire that kills someone constitutes murder," California Forests Department firefighter chief John Hawkins said Thursday.

The fire began near the town of Cabazon, and, whipped by strong winds, spread rapidly out of control. About 1,750 firefighters have been deployed on the scene, and 1,100 people have been evacuated from 400 homes threatened by the blaze. Ten homes have been burned down.

Schwarzenegger ordered flags put at half mast for the dead firefighters as he instituted the state of emergency for the area of the fire, which allows the state to commit greater resources to combating the blaze.

The fire added to the record destruction of US forest land this year by wildfires: more area has been charred across the country than any year since authorities began keeping statistics in 1960. More than 9.6 million acres (3.9 million hectares) have been consumed since January 1, well past last year's 12-month record of 8.7 million acres.

California's fires have been exacerbated this year by a severe heat wave. In September a fire ravaged 120,000 acres of mountainous forest northwest of Los Angeles. Another fire in July swept through the scrub desert and mountains north of Palm Springs.

Source: AFP

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