Calmer winds helped crews fighting a massive wildfire today that killed four firefighters and critically injured a fifth, while investigators searched for the arsonist who set the blaze roaring through the canyons of Southern California.
"It looks like things are beginning to turn in our favour. We had a good overnight. It wasn't nearly as windy as it's been," said California Department of Forestry spokesman Bill Peters.
Now in its third day, the fire that broke out in uninhabited brushland about 90 miles (145 kilometres east of Los Angeles had blackened 39,900 acres (16,000 hectares), or more than 62 square miles (159 square kilometres, and was 40% contained, authorities said.
Crews managed to hem in the fire's active northern side and on Saturday planned to attack the southern end with bulldozers.
The fire on the southern end was only a mile or two (1.6 or 3.2 kilometres from the town of San Jacinto but golf courses and a riverbed provided natural barriers so there was no immediate danger, Peters said.
A reward for information leading to the arsonist soared to 500,000 US dollars (£264,000) Friday, as 100,000 US dollars (£53,000) posted by Riverside County quickly multiplied with matching offers from the state, neighbouring San Bernardino County, Rancho Mirage resident Tim Blixseth and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which has a casino.
Forecasters predicted winds would ease and temperatures would drop slightly throughout the weekend, which could help as crews work in steep terrain to build fire breaks around the blaze.
Investigators were looking into whether the wildfire was related to other blazes in recent months, including a canyon fire last weekend, though a sheriff's spokesman said there was no immediate indication of a serial arsonist.
Residents said they saw two young men leaving the area where the fire broke out west of the San Jacinto Mountains.
The fire destroyed about 10 structures, including homes, forced 700 people to flee, and flushed coyotes and other wildlife into the open.
Santa Ana winds gusted to 45 mph (72.4 kph) but kept the fire in undeveloped land, away from homes in Riverside County. More than 2,700 firefighters worked to corral the flames and a DC-10 jet capable of dropping 12,000-gallon (45,400-litre) loads of retardant joined a fleet of firefighting helicopters and airtankers.
About 400 people remained evacuated Friday night from the tiny town of Poppet Flat.
James Pence, 63, said that shortly after the fire started in the town of Cabazon, he saw two unfamiliar young men leaving the area, which he said is close to a teenage hangout known as Raccoon Rock. "These kids didn't belong here. They were strange people," Pence said.
Tim Bowers, 49, said he was awakened by his dog, looked outside his trailer and saw flames on a hillside about 100 yards away. He said two unfamiliar young men walked away from the fire.
"I looked at them. They looked at me. Then they turned their heads and kept walking," Bowers said. The two were gone by the time he alerted an arriving firefighter, he said.
Sheriff's detectives interviewed the Cabazon trailer park neighbours.
The US Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry were investigating the firefighters' deaths, gathering information on weather, topography and fuel. They interviewed firefighters who were nearby and retrieved information from dispatch tapes.
Michael Wakowski, a fire division chief in the San Bernardino National Forest, said it did not appear the crew did anything wrong.
"Sometimes things go bad, I hate to say," he said.
The firefighters were killed Thursday when the wind blew a wall of flames down on them in the hills near Palm Springs as they tried to protect a home.
The injured firefighter was identified as Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley. About 70% of the damaged and burned skin was removed by surgeons on Friday and Cerda remained in critical condition, said Jorge Valencia, a spokesman for Arrowhead Regional Medical Centre.
Investigators were looking into whether the fire was related to a 40-acre (16-hectare) blaze on Sunday in nearby Mias Canyon. "There's been a lot of fires in this area all summer long. You can connect the dots," Wakowski said.
Riverside County fire Chief John Hawkins said the rash of fires began about three months ago. He declined to say how many fires occurred or provide other details because of the investigation.
Investigators have not said how they know the blaze was arson, though they said those responsible could face murder charges.