Bush tours fires, sees ‘better day ahead’

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – Firefighters gained the upper hand on nearly all of the California wildfires on Thursday as winds died down after five days battling 20 fires from the mountains north of Los Angeles down to the Mexican border.

Most of the 500,000 people in the largest evacuation in California’s modern history were on their way home, officials said. Some 1,600 homes have been destroyed since Sunday.

Two burned bodies were found in a house in hard-hit San Diego County, bringing the death toll to at least eight. Most were elderly who died while being evacuated.

“This is a better day than any we’ve had since this thing started,” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said.

President George W. Bush, who declared California’s wildfires a “major disaster,” was due to survey the damage with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday and check on the government’s response.

“It’s a sad situation out there in southern California. I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts and they just need to know a lot of folks care about them,” Bush said before leaving the White House.

He said he wanted to make sure California was receiving the help it needed to deal with the wildfires.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, criticized along with Bush for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, had 1,000 people on the ground in badly scorched San Diego County.

Though fire officials were relieved that the hot, dry Santa Ana winds driving the flames had weakened, they conceded that offshore breezes replacing them presented a danger. Even those milder winds could fan the flames, being fought by some 9,000 weary men and women.

The wildfires broke out during the weekend after the Santa Ana winds began to blow and have blackened nearly 800 square miles, and injured more than 60 people, many of them firefighters.

‘RE-ENTRY DAY’

San Diego County has suffered losses in excess of $1 billion, and three of the largest fires were still burning there, mostly in the eastern, less populated part of the county.

“This is going to be a re-entry day for many of the thousands of San Diegans that are out there,” said Ron Lane, head of county emergency services. “We are absolutely thrilled.”

Fewer than 1,000 people spent the night at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, compared with some 10,000 on Monday and Tuesday. The good food, showers, acupuncture and massage at evacuees’ disposal might have attracted chronically homeless street people.

“You see a lot of them walking around the parking lot,” evacuee Jennifer Ryan said. “They know a good thing when they see it.”

One of the most critical fires was in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, where containment of the 20,000-acre (8,094-hectare) Santiago fire suffered a setback overnight.

Authorities said federal agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined local authorities in investigating the Santiago fire as arson.

“Those are crime scenes,” said Jim Amormino, spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He said a $70,000 reward was posted for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

Three out of four of Los Angeles County’s fires had 100 percent containment, including one in the celebrity enclave of Malibu that garnered much attention in the first days.

A risk modeling firm said insured fire losses from the fires would likely cost between $900 million and $1.6 billion.

Reuters

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California fires may be at turning point

SAN DIEGO – A massive aerial assault and a break in harsh winds helped firefighters make their first major progress against Southern California’s firestorm, raising evacuees’ hopes of returning home for good. But flames were still drawing perilously toward thousands of homes.

The hot, dry Santa Ana winds that have whipped the blazes into a destructive, indiscriminate fury since the weekend were expected to all but disappear Thursday.

“That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.

The record high temperatures of recent days began succumbing to cooling sea breezes, and two fires that burned 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County were fully contained.

President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, was scheduled to arrive in California Thursday and to take an aerial tour of the burn areas, accompanied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Losses total at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and include a third of the state’s avocado crop. The losses are half as high as those in Southern California’s 2003 fires, but are certain to rise.

The more hopeful news on the fire lines came a day after residents in some hard-hit San Diego County neighborhoods were allowed back to their streets, many lined with the wreckage of melted cars.

In upscale Rancho Bernardo, house after house had been reduced to a smoldering heap. Cheryl Monticello, 38 and eight months pregnant, knew what she would find when she came back Wednesday because a city official warned her the house was lost. But she had to see it for herself.

“You really need to see it to know for sure,” Monticello said.

Only the white brick chimney and her daughter’s backyard slide had survived the inferno that bore down on her neighborhood Monday morning.

Running Springs resident Ricky Garcia returned to his house in the San Bernardino Mountains on Wednesday, panicked that his street had been wiped out and his cats, Jeff and Viper, were lost.

But his house, a new home built on a cleared lot, was unscathed, unlike those of his neighbors. Hiding underneath a porch and mewing loudly was Jeff, his long, black hair gray with ash. Viper, however, was nowhere in sight.

“I’m excited to see my cat and my house, but absolutely devastated for my neighbors,” he said, after loading Jeff into a carrier and preparing to evacuate again. “I’ve been through fires before, but this one hit a lot closer to home.”

As nature’s blitzkrieg starts to recede, many of the other refugees will be allowed back to their neighborhoods. More than 500,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County alone, part of the largest mass evacuation in California history.

Even with the slackening winds, the county remains a tinderbox. Firefighters cut fire lines around the major blazes in San Diego County, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained. More than 8,500 homes were still threatened.

Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003.

To the northeast, in the San Bernardino County mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said 6,000 homes remained in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.

Both fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters that dumped more than 30 loads of water.

So far, at least 15 fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes since they began late Saturday.

The burn area of nearly 460,000 acres — about 719 square miles — stretches in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the middle of that arc, the Santiago Fire in Orange County had burned nearly 20,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. Only 50 percent contained, it is a suspected arson fire.

Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to help investigate. Authorities said a smaller, more recent fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.

Despite the widespread destruction, the fires have directly claimed just one life, 52-year-old Thomas Varshock of Tecate. The San Diego medical examiner’s office listed five other deaths as connected to the blazes because all who died were evacuees.

The number of victims could rise as authorities return to neighborhoods where homes burned. In 2003, 22 people lost their lives in a series of fires that lasted nearly two weeks.

Terry Dooley, who was ordered out of his San Bernardino home with his wife and three sons Monday, said authorities learned important lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 fires.

Unlike many of the poor neighborhoods flooded by Hurricane Katrina, some of California‘s hardest-hit areas were filled with upscale homes, with easy access and wide streets. Authorities used reverse 911 calls to warn residents to get out.

“They learned how to get things done more quickly,” Dooley said as he waited at a roadblock to return home to San Diego‘s Rancho Bernardo area.

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