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.
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.