Photo in the News: Arson-Caused Wildfire Kills Five Firefighters in Southern California

California wildfire photo
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Updated November 3, 2006—Waves of smoke from the Esperanza wildfire billow over California's Santa Ana Mountains on October 26, the same day four firefighters were killed battling the blaze.

The firefighting team was consumed by flames near the town of Cabazon while working to save a remote home. A fifth member of the team died from massive burns on October 31.

NASA's Aqua satellite captured this image, with red outlines showing where the eye in the sky detected actively burning fires.

In total, more than 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) of land were scorched by the wildfire before it was fully contained on October 31.

Officials with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department say arson was the cause and arrested a suspect on November 2. According to the Los Angeles Times, Raymond Lee Oyler, a 36-year-old car mechanic, faces five counts of murder in addition to the arson charges.

The fire started near Cabazon at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. The blaze was quickly fanned out of control by the Santa Ana winds, says Al Matecko of the Esperanza Accident Investigation Team.

Santa Ana winds are hot, dry air currents common in Southern California during fall and early winter. Pressure forces high-altitude air downward and past the state's mountains and deserts, where compression turns the air mass into warm, sometimes hurricane-strength gales.

A combination of the strong winds and intense heat as "the fire created its own weather" dried out vegetation that served as fuel and helped the flames spread quickly, Matecko said.

In the U.S., 2006 has been an unusually devastating year for wildfires, which have consumed 9.5 million acres (3.8 million hectares) of land so far. California alone has seen more than 700,000 acres (280,000 hectares) burn.

And it may not be getting easier for firefighters anytime soon. As global temperatures continue to rise and drought conditions persist, huge U.S. wildfire seasons may become the norm instead of the exception, studies suggest.

—Aalok Mehta

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