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Firefighter killed battling wildfire, bringing California death toll to 26

Arroyo Grande Hot Shot firefighter Shelby Robinette takes a break as crew members set back fires as the El Dorado Fire.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The death toll from California’s unprecedented 2020 firestorms rose to 26 after officials announced the death of a firefighter battling the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino County, a blaze sparked by a pyrotechnics from a gender-reveal party.

Few details were immediately available about the death Thursday, and the firefighter’s name had not been released. On Friday, residents in the San Bernardino Mountains area lined the highway in respect as the fallen firefighter was escorted from the fire zone.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the family, friends and fellow firefighters during this time,” the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement released Friday.

The fire broke out Sept. 7 near Yucaipa and is 66% contained. Officials said it was caused by a smoke-emitting pyrotechnic device that was part of a gender-reveal party in a park. Such devices typically shoot off blue or pink smoke to signal the gender of an expected child.

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The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department could not say whether the family whose stunt sparked the fire would be charged in the death, nor have they been identified.

“If investigative reports are filed with our office, we will review all facts, evidence, statements and reports to determine what criminal charges, if any, need to be filed,” San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Jason Anderson said in a statement Sept. 9, the Associated Press reported.

The Snow fire, which began Thursday and has grown to 2,500 acres, is forcing evacuations and threatening power lines near Palm Springs, officials say.

In Riverside County, the fast-moving Snow fire, started by a vehicle, prompted evacuations near Palm Springs after doubling in size overnight. It was 0% contained.

The El Dorado fire is not the first wildfire sparked by a gender-reveal party. A 2017 fire in Arizona that burned 47,000 acres and caused more than $8 million in damage was set off by an exploding, powder-blue target.

The death in the Yucaipa blaze is the 26th attributed to a California wildfire since August and the third among firefighters in that same span.

On Aug. 19, a firefighting helicopter on a water-dropping mission crashed in Fresno County, killing the pilot, Michael John Fournier, 52, of Rancho Cucamonga.

Firefighter Diane Jones, 63, was fatally injured Aug. 31 while battling the Tatham fire in Tehama County, which was part of the sprawling August Complex fire north of the Bay Area — now considered the largest in California’s modern history.

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Five men stayed behind, after dozens of guests and staffers were evacuated in the face of a massive wildfire, to save Breitenbush, a famed Oregon hot springs retreat.

The largest concentration of fire deaths have been in Butte County, where the North Complex fire swept through a rural region. At least 15 residents were killed.

The victims who have been identified range widely in age: from 16 to 79. Most lived in Berry Creek, a mountain hamlet northeast of Oroville, while two hailed from nearby Feather Falls.

Many simply could not get out before the fire hit.

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Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Thursday evening that only one person reported missing is still unaccounted for — a promising sign the death toll might not climb higher.

“Our efforts to really get out and start searching areas has increased dramatically,” he said during a briefing, adding: “Because we’re covering a lot more ground, and that number [of fatalities] is staying steady, that gives me some hope.”


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