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Firefighter's prognosis is grim, doctor says

Story Highlights

NEW: Injured firefigher undergoes surgery, is in critical condition
• $500,000 pledged for information leading to conviction of arsonist
• Names of four firefighters killed are released
• Officials say fire deliberate; arsonist will face murder charges
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COLTON, California (CNN) -- The prognosis is "poor" for a firefighter who suffered burns over 90 percent of his body while battling a sprawling Southern California wildfire, the chief of the hospital where the man is being treated said Friday.

Meanwhile, the amount of reward money pledged for the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for setting the fire has grown to $500,000.

Dr. David T. Wong told reporters that Pablo Certa, 23, had shown slight improvements, but that didn't change his prognosis.

"His degree of burns is one of the most severe," Wong said.

Certa underwent an hourlong surgery Friday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center where 70 percent of the damaged and dead skin was removed, hospital officials said. He remained in critical condition in the hospital burn center.

Certa was part of a five-man U.S. Forest Service crew trying to protect a house from the fire, which authorities suspect was deliberately set and has spread across 24,000 acres near Palm Springs.

The other four firefighters died Thursday -- three at the scene and one at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton.

Dr. David Wong, chief of the medical center, said the degree of Certa's burns "is one of the most severe. We may be taking him to surgery sometime today." During surgery, doctors will remove as much burned skin as possible from Certa, 23.

The other firefighters were identified as Engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, a 21-year firefighting veteran; Engine Operator Jess McLean of Beaumont, 27, who had seven years of service; Assistant Engine Operator Jason McKay, 27, who had been fighting fires for five years; and Daniel Hoover-Najera of San Jacinto, 20, who had worked with the crew two years.

All five men were on U.S. Forest Service Engine Crew 57 assigned to the San Jacinto Ranger District. Forest Service officials said the crew was trying to protect a house when the wind shifted suddenly around 9 a.m. Thursday.

Firefighter Greg Keefer said the fire spread quickly through a grove of eucalyptus trees which contain an explosive oil.

"[The fire] got behind them, from what I understand," Keefer said. "That's a fireman's worst nightmare." (Watch firefighters battle blaze Friday -- 2:34 Video)

More evacuations as fire spreads

The blaze forced the evacuation of more homes Friday in a sparsely populated area south of Banning.

Bill Peters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the homes belonged to a few dozen people.

The fire has destroyed 10 homes, and 500 more homes and three commercial properties are threatened, according to the department's Web site. (Watch a car escape fire engulfing a road -- 1:30 Video)

Mandatory evacuations continued Friday for 300 to 400 homes in the Twin Pines and Poppet Flats communities as well as in South Banning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Up to 500 people were "sheltered in place" -- meaning they could not be evacuated in time -- at the Silent Valley Club RV Park off Highway 243, near the Twin Pines and Poppet Flats communities, Hawkins said Thursday. They are being protected by firefighters.

"They're going to encounter heat, smoke, but they're probably going to be OK," said Hawkins.

Officials have not decided how long the "sheltered" people would have to remain at Silent Valley.

One person suffered minor injuries Thursday, officials said.

By Friday morning, the fire -- which stretched about 15 miles from east to west -- was 5 percent contained, Peters said.

Some 1,750 firefighters and other personnel using air tankers, helicopters, bulldozers and other equipment fought the blaze which continued to advance southwest. A DC-10 supertanker was also brought in Friday to assist in fighting the blaze.

Search for the arsonist

Rewards totaling $500,000 have been pledged for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for setting the fire.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors both pledged $100,000.

Also pledging $100,000 were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office, a private citizen identified as Tim Blexseth of Rancho Mirage, California, and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which has a casino.

Members of Congress from the area spearheaded a drive to raise funds for the slain firefighters' families.

A fire official said the arsonist would face murder charges.

"An arson fire that leads to the death of anyone constitutes murder," John Hawkins of the Riverside County Fire Department said Thursday.

Investigators determined it was arson after studying the fire's burn patterns and tracing it to its source.

He said the fire, which began in Cabazon, was well planned -- set in a place and under conditions that would likely result in maximum damage.

"It was set in alignment with the wind, the slope," he said. "It was basically set to go."

Arson investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were aiding the probe.

Before the fire began, Patrick Chandler of the Riverside County Fire Department said the area was under a red flag warning earlier in the week because of dry conditions and gusty Santa Ana winds.


CNN's Irving Last and Karan Olson contributed to this report.


Assistant Engine Operator Jason McKay, 27, had fought fires for five years.




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