- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

SOBOBA HOT SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) — The mother of one of the four firefighters who died battling a wildfire that authorities blamed on arsonists urged those who set it to turn themselves in yesterday.

“I firmly believe you didn’t believe that things were going to turn out the way they did, but they did,” said Bonnie McKay, whose son Jason, 27, died Thursday. “Don’t let the remorse eat you alive. Come forward. … I for one will try not to judge you. There is only one who can judge you.”

Meanwhile, firefighters took advantage of calm weather and dissipating Santa Ana winds, making headway against the 62-square-mile fire by dumping water and retardant on flames using a fleet of helicopters and airplanes, including a DC-10 jumbo jet.

“Today is a turning point that will tell if our containment survives,” said Janet Upton, a California Department of Forestry spokeswoman at the command post in Beaumont, 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

The 39,900-acre blaze was 40 percent contained, two days after blowtorch gusts overran a U.S. Forest Service crew, killing four of its members and leaving a fifth clinging to life with burns over most of his body.

Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, was listed in critical condition yesterday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center after surgery Friday to remove damaged skin.

A reward for information leading to the arsonist soared to $500,000 Friday, as $100,000 posted by Riverside County quickly multiplied with matching offers from the state, neighboring San Bernardino County, Rancho Mirage resident Tim Blixseth and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.

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 indication of a serial arsonist.

Fire officials said there had been six other minor injuries to firefighters and, after completion of damage assessments, raised the number of destroyed homes to 27, up from earlier estimates of 10.

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