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El Dorado Fire: Firefighter Killed While Battling Blaze; More Than 21K Acres Burned

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Big Bear Hot Shots wait for the El Dorado Fire to drop to a roadway before going to work. (Courtesy San Bernardino National Forest)
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This story is no longer being updated. Get the latest news on the fire >>

Jump to: Basics | Evacuations | Closures | Air Quality | Additional Resources

U.S. Forest Service officials say a firefighter has died while battling the El Dorado Fire.

The victim, reportedly a member of a "hotshot" team working in the Pinezanita area, went missing Thursday, prompting a search by law enforcement and firefighters.

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Officials have not yet released the name of the firefighter pending notification of family. The cause of death is under investigation and officials say more details will be made available as they work to confirm what happened.

The wildfire continues to burn in the San Bernardino National Forest, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes in mountain communities.

Here's what we know about the blaze so far today:

THE BASICS

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  • Acreage: 22,071
  • Containment: 65%
  • Structures destroyed: 4 homes, 6 other structures
  • Structures damaged: 2 homes, 4 other structures
  • Residences evacuated: 3,467
  • Structures threatened: 26,031
  • Personnel: 1,351 firefighters
  • Deaths: one firefighter killed
  • Injuries: 12

The El Dorado Fire began on Saturday, September 5, with a bang β€” literally β€” when a firework from a gender reveal party in Yucaipa ignited a blaze that has threatened thousands of homes and caused the mandatory evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

Officials say fire intensity increased along Highway 38 near Angelus Oaks. The roadway was being used as a containment line and firefighters had been able to keep the blaze south of it.

Crews are also actively protecting structures from the Pinezanita area east to Jenk Lake.

The fire has reached the burn scar of the 2015 Lake Fire but continues to advance north, fueled by upcanyon winds and aided by topography in the mountains.

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Officials also report "spotting" about half a mile in front of the main body, meaning spot fires are igniting outside the fire perimeter. That distance has the potential to increase to about a mile later today, officials said.

Forest officials also had a message for residents who might be alarmed by what they're seeing north of Highway 38 on satellite imagery available online through Modis.

Modis is an instrument aboard the Terra and Aqua EOS Satellites and measure thermal and infrared detections. This can create confusion as anything emitting heat registers in Modis, including smoke AND fire-fighting equipment. What communities are perceiving as spot fires across Hwy 38 is likely smoke or equipment operating in the area. As of this update [just before 9a.m.], the El Dorado Fire has NOT crossed Highway 38.

EVACUATIONS

Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for the following communities (detailed map here):

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  • Angelus Oaks
  • Seven Oaks
  • Barton Flats / Jenks Lake Area east to Onyx Summit

A Red Cross evacuation center is open at the Redlands East Valley High School, 31000 E. Colton Ave.
At noon today, evacuation orders were lifted for the communities of Mountain Home Village and Forest Falls, though both are still under an evacuation warning. A community meeting for residents there is slated for 4 p.m.

Big Bear residents are not currently under any evacuation warnings or orders, but local officials there have issued a fire advisory, asking residents "to closely monitor the El Dorado Fire, and take appropriate precautions based on your individual circumstances."

CLOSURES

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CalFire Captain Fernando Herrera in his SUV along Highway 38 during the El Dorado Fire. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

Highway 38 remains closed between Bryant Street and Lake Williams Drive.

The San Bernardino National Forest remains closed through Sept. 21 β€” along with all other national forests in California.

AIR QUALITY

The South Coast Air Quality Management District extended a smoke advisory through Friday afternoon as unhealthy air continues to blanket much of the L.A. Basin and Inland Empire. It's not just local fires though; smoke is also making its way to us from wildfires in Northern California, Oregon and Washington.

Look up the latest air quality info for your area at airnow.gov.

CAUSE AND POSSIBLE CHARGES

The family behind the party where authorities say a pyrotechnic device was set off tried to put out the fire and called 911, but it was too late. They have cooperated with authorities, but Cal Fire spokesperson Captain Bennett Malloy says it's possible they could face misdemeanor charges:

"Some of the laws they could have broken: a public resource code where you cause a fire on somebody else's land, or, in California under a penal code, there's provisions for what's called recklessly causing a fire. And that may be the case with this fire, but that would be up to the district attorney to determine."

Prosecutors could pursue felony charges if someone is hurt or killed, or if homes are damaged by the fire, though no charges had been filed yet.

As of Friday, Sept. 18, one person has died, a dozen others have been injured and several homes and other structures have been destroyed or damaged.

Irvine attorney William Weinberg, who has defended people accused of setting wildland fires, says possible charges include homicide and manslaughter. Weinberg said it all depends on how much knowledge the person had about the fire risk of their actions.

He noted that a criminal sentence could force repayment of millions of dollars in restitution, forcing the person into bankruptcy. On top of that, the people who lost homes and property can file civil lawsuits of their own.

Charges against people accused of starting wildfires can vary widely depending on the circumstances of the fire and which agency is doing the charging.

For example, in January 2014, three men faced felony charges after a campfire they started to keep warm in the Angeles National Forest grew out of control. That was the beginning of the Colby Fire, which burned about 2,000 acres and destroyed several homes in Glendora. Two of those men were later sentenced to several months in federal prison.

Going further back, a man convicted of intentionally starting the Old Fire in 2003 was sentenced to death. Five people died of heart attacks as that blaze spread in the San Bernardino Mountains, burning some 90,000 acres and destroying more than 1,000 structures.

HOW WE’RE REPORTING ON THIS

Sharon McNary is reporting on the death of the firefighter and legal implications. Ryan Fonseca and Brian Frank have been helming the digital story.

This is a developing story. We fact check everything and rely only on information from credible sources (think fire, police, government officials and reporters on the ground). Sometimes, however, we make mistakes and/or initial reports turn out to be wrong. In all cases, we strive to bring you the most accurate information in real time and will update this story as new information becomes available.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

For the latest information straight from local emergency officials, check the following websites and social media accounts:

FIRE RESOURCES

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