Arson investigators questioned two “people of interest” Monday as firefighters contained the wind-fed wildfire in Riverside County that killed four federal firefighters and destroyed 34 homes, authorities said.
The two men live in Cabazon, where the fire began, and were released after they were interviewed by investigators Monday afternoon, authorities said.
“We have two people we have questioned that are people of interest,” said Tom Freeman, executive officer of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. “Sheriff’s personnel have not placed them under arrest ... we continue to work the case aggressively.”
Riverside County sheriff’s spokesman Earl Quinata said arson investigators planned to interview many other people.
“At times, we are going to have persons of interest.... We are conducting those interviews, and we have no one in custody,” Quinata said. “However, we are asking the public to please keep calling the tip line if they have heard or they feel they have information on this arson-homicide investigation.”
The Riverside County district attorney’s office has already appointed a prosecutor to assist in the case and prepare for a potential trial. “It is potentially a death-penalty case,” said Sara Danville, chief deputy district attorney for Riverside County.
“If it is ultimately proven that this was an arson fire and the murder was committed in the course of arson, then that would qualify as a special circumstance,” which could lead to the death penalty, she said. She noted that her office prosecuted two arson-murder cases in 1999 in which the defendants were sentenced to death.
The Esperanza fire has blackened more than 40,000 acres and destroyed 34 homes in the mountain communities west of Palm Springs, with the tab for fire operations topping $8.3 million, not including the damage to personal property. The blaze was classified as fully contained Monday at 6 p.m.
“To have it contained in a matter of five days is a tribute to the hard work these guys on the front line have done,” said Randy Scales, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
All evacuations have been lifted, and Highway 243, one of the main roads to Idyllwild, was fully reopened for the first time since the blaze began Thursday, fire officials said.
Many residents returned to find charred rubble where their homes once stood.
“We took a hell of a hit,” said Phil Reddish, 55, of Twin Pines, as he sifted through his belongings. “I’m just trying to salvage the keepsakes as mementos you keep from a fire that you survive.”
He and his son, Ty, tried to keep their mood light as they rummaged through the remains of their home. “You have to be able to joke about this, because if you don’t, the reality of it will eat you alive,” Ty Reddish said.
The home of Rudy Luna, 61, was spared, but less than a hundred yards away, his neighbors’ house had burned to the ground.
“It’s a whole community up here,” said Luna, who spent the day trying to help neighbors. “People out here know what to expect, and we prepare for it, but you can’t prepare for a fire that comes that fast.”
The Esperanza fire was set about 1 a.m. Thursday in the foothills near Esperanza Avenue in Cabazon, authorities said. Fanned by Santa Ana wind gusts up to 60 mph, the wildfire quickly grew out of control.
Later that morning, the windblown flames swept across the mountains and overwhelmed a U.S. Forest Service crew of Engine 57 from the Alandale Station in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Fellow firefighters watched helplessly as the fire took the lives of Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, the team’s captain; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.
John Clays, McLean’s brother in law, read a brief statement on behalf of the family at the fire command center in Beaumont.
“Jess McLean is and will always be a great man,” Clay said. “He is a man that was dedicated to his work and devoted to his family.”
The crew’s sole survivor was Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, who suffered burns over most of his body. He remained in critical condition Monday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton.
Cerda had surgery Monday to insert a feeding tube and remove additional damaged skin, said Kathy Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service.
More than 50 investigators from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives are working on the case.
Freeman did not say what led investigators to the two unidentified men questioned Monday. He said law enforcement and fire officials were investigating more than 250 leads that had been called into the arson tip line.
About 1 p.m., sheriff’s deputies searched a residence in Cabazon about a quarter-mile from where the fire started.
“Two deputies were in there for a good while early in the afternoon and came out with a couple of bags,” said Bob Dunham, 70, who lives three houses away.
Susan Raichel, spokeswoman for the ATF, confirmed that two people from Cabazon were brought in for questioning about the fire. She said she didn’t know if those people lived in the house that was searched.
The ATF and FBI are each contributing $25,000 to bring the total reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the arsonists to $550,000, Rachel said. Anyone with information about the blaze is asked to call the arson tip line, at (951) 922-7116.
Times staff writers Sara Lin, Hector Becerra and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.