Firefighters Die Protecting Homes - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

10/26/06-Cabazon, CA

Firefighters Die Protecting Homes

Structures burn as a wildfire rages in Riverside County, California, on Thursday. Structures burn as a wildfire rages in Riverside County, California, on Thursday.

A wind-driven wildfire near Palm Springs engulfed a fire engine Thursday, killing three firefighters, and up to 400 people were trapped at a recreational vehicle park when flames blocked 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 firefighters were trying to protect a house from the 4,000-acre wildfire when the flames engulfed the engine, said Pat Boss, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. (Watch flames rage across hillsides -- 1:58)

"The engine was in the area, and with the wind conditions like they were, the fire just overtakes and burns the entire engine," 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." (Watch how changing winds pump up the firestorm -- 3:01 Video)

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 in the region due to high winds and dry conditions.

The cause of the wildfire wasn't immediately clear. It started early Thursday, burning in a valley with a few scattered ranch homes. The nearby hamlets of Poppet Ranch and Twin Pines were evacuated along with a juvenile center, Twin Pines Boys Ranch.

By early morning, about 200 people left homes when mandatory evacuations were ordered, fire Capt. Julie Hutchinson said.

One man, injured as he left the Twin Pines area, was treated for minor burns to his hand and forehead, said San Gorgonio Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Becky McGuire in Banning. She said she could see the fire from where she worked.

"It looks terrible from here," McGuire said. "The fire is sweeping across the horizon."

Officials worried the fire 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 it was burning Thursday morning, the ground cover is mostly grass and chaparral that burns hot and quickly, allowing the fire to spread quickly but with little staying power, said Becky Luther, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Fire Department.

"The biggest concern is if it gets over the hills," Luther said. "That's where all of the homes are."

An emergency evacuation center was set up at Banning Community Center, near Cabazon, where the fire was raging.

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."

Cabazon is about 90 miles east of Los Angeles and 17 miles northwest of Palm Springs in Riverside County.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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