Firefighter dies battling blaze, another fire burns homes

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A firefighter puts out a hot spot along Highway 38 northwest of Forrest Falls, Calif., as the El Dorado Fire continues to burn Thursday afternoon, Sept. 10, 2020. The fire started by a device at a gender reveal party on Saturday. (Will Lester/The Orange County Register/SCNG via AP)

JUNIPER HILLS, Calif. (AP) — The death of a firefighter on the lines of a wildfire east of Los Angeles was under investigation Friday as another blaze to the north burned homes in a small community on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

The death occurred Thursday in San Bernardino National Forest as crews battled the El Dorado Fire about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of LA, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement.

The fire erupted earlier this month from a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used by a couple to reveal their baby’s gender, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said.

The name of the firefighter was being withheld until family members are notified.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the family, friends and fellow firefighters during this time,” Forest Service spokesperson Zach Behrens said in the statement.

No other information was released about the firefighter, the agency the firefighter worked for, or the circumstances of the death. The firefighter’s body was escorted down the mountain in a procession of first-responder vehicles.

A Cal Fire statement said it was the 26th death involving wildfires besieging the state.

More than 18,500 firefighters were battling more than two dozen major wildfires in California on Friday as a cold front moving through the western states was causing gusty winds.

In northern Los Angeles County, winds were gusting at more than 30 mph (48.2 kph) as the Bobcat Fire moved into the community of Juniper Hills and threatened nearby Paradise Springs after burning all the way across the San Gabriel Mountains to the desert. After burning for nearly two weeks, the blaze was advancing on several fronts and putting up an enormous plume of smoke visible from across the region.

“We have aircraft, crews and equipment doing everything they can to slow the spread,” Angeles National Forest tweeted.

Wyatt Stephenson helped his friend evacuate his home at the top of Juniper Hills.

“We were waiting for the fire to come over the ridge. When it finally came over, we got him out of there,” Stephenson said. “We found out later that his house burned. The fire just burned everything.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how many homes were burned.

On the south side of the fire, firefighters continued to protect Mount Wilson, which overlooks greater Los Angeles and has a historic observatory founded more than a century ago and numerous broadcast antennas serving Southern California.

A new blaze sparked by a vehicle that caught fire was growing in wilderness outside Palm Springs.

To the north, a fire burning for nearly a month in Sequoia National Forest roared to life again Friday and prompted evacuation orders for the central California mountain communities of Silver City and Mineral King.

More than 7,900 wildfires have burned more than 5,300 square miles (13,727 square kilometers) in California this year, including many since a mid-August barrage of dry lightning ignited parched vegetation.

The El Dorado Fire has burned more than 33 square miles (85.4 square kilometers) and was 66% contained, with 10 buildings destroyed and six damaged.

Cal Fire said earlier this month that the El Dorado Fire was ignited Sept. 5 when a couple, their young children and someone there to record video staged the baby gender reveal at El Dorado Ranch Park at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The device was set off in a field and quickly ignited dry grass. The couple frantically tried to use bottled water to extinguish the flames and called 911.

Authorities have not released the identities of the couple, who could face criminal charges and be held liable for the cost of fighting the fire.

Shortly after the fire began, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson issued a statement saying he was aware of the community’s concerns about how the fire started.

“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,” Anderson said.

In 2017, a massive Arizona wildfire was accidentally started by an off-duty Border Patrol agent who shot a target filled with an explosive blue powder at a gender reveal. The fire burned 73 square miles (189 square kilometers) and caused $8 million in damage, The agent was charged with a misdemeanor and sentenced to probation.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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