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.


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.


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Stars flee as wildfires hit Malibu

Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated and thousands of homes remain at risk tonight as wildfires tear through southern California, US authorities said.

Homes were ablaze from the beaches of Malibu – where celebrities including Barbra Streisand, Mel Gibson and record company executive David Geffen have houses – to the mountain retreats east of Los Angeles and south to Orange and San Diego counties to Mexico.

President George Bush declared a federal emergency as temperatures are still set to increase and conditions worsen as the gusts of the Santa Ana wind fanning the blazes increase in strength.

Mr Bush said: “All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes, and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes.

“We send our prayers and thoughts with those who’ve been affected, and we send the help of the federal government as well.”

As the fires burned for a third day, two people have died as at least a dozen wildfires destroyed more than 1,200 homes and businesses. At least 346,000 homes were evacuated in San Diego County alone, sheriff’s officials said.

But the total could be much higher, and state officials were still struggling to estimate how many people have fled.

Since they began on Sunday, the fires have burned at least 245,957 acres, or 384 square miles – an area larger than New York City.

Walls of flame whipped from mountain passes to the edges of California’s celebrated coastline, spreading so quickly that even hotels serving as temporary shelters for evacuees had to be evacuated.

Among those affected, British actress Jane Seymour said her husband James Keach was fighting the fire around their Malibu home.


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Wildfires force mass evacuations

SAN DIEGO – The wind-fueled fires that have burned more than 700 homes and chased away 265,000 residents may be only the start of the destruction in Southern California, where Tuesday’s forecast called for hotter temperatures and more explosive gusts.

The blazes bedeviled firefighters as walls of flame whipped from mountain passes to the edges of the state’s celebrated coastline, spreading so quickly that even hotels serving as temporary shelters for evacuees had to be evacuated.

Wanda Tomkinson, 79, fled the Doubletree hotel in Del Mar with her husband and their Boston Terrier after employees called each room to tell customers they had to leave. The couple, carrying medication, clothes, tax records and a dog bowl, said they were relying on a family friend to take them in.

If not, Tomkinson added, “the Lord’ll take care of us.”

With some 245,957 acres, or 384 square miles, ablaze, President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven Southern California counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts.

The wildfires claimed one life, in San Diego County, and injured 42. At least 16 of the injured were firefighters.

Fire crews and fleeing residents described desperate conditions that were sure to get worse. Temperatures across Southern California were about 10 degrees above average and were expected to approach 100 degrees Tuesday in Orange and San Diego counties.

“We are getting very strong northeast winds. They are very erratic, causing us to modify our procedures,” said Capt. Don Camp, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fires were exploding and shooting embers in all directions, preventing crews from forming traditional fire lines and severely limiting aerial bombardment, he said.

“Lifesaving is our priority. Getting people out from in front of the fire — those have been our priorities,” Camp said.

Thousands of residents sought shelter at fairgrounds, schools and community centers. The largest gathering was at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where evacuees anxiously watched the stadium’s television sets, hoping for a glimpse of their neighborhood on the local news.

San Diego County was ablaze from its rural north to its border region with Mexico, where the wildfires that started Sunday claimed their only fatality to date: Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego. His body was found Sunday afternoon, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office said, although no other details were released.

At least 250,000 residents in San Diego County alone were ordered to evacuate. Public schools were closed, as were campuses at the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University.

In the northern part of the county, 500 homes and 100 businesses had been destroyed as a wildfire exploded to 145,000 acres and marched toward the Pacific Coast enclave of Del Mar, forcing a partial evacuation.

The scope of the infernos was immense and was reminiscent of the blazes that tore through Southern California four years ago this month, killing 22 and destroying 3,640 homes.

The fires that started Sunday were whipped by ferocious winds, generating walls of flame that bore down on housing developments in a wide swath.

Homes burned from the beaches of Malibu to the mountain retreats east of Los Angeles and south through Orange and San Diego counties to Mexico.

East of Los Angeles, a two-front fire destroyed at least 160 homes in the Lake Arrowhead area, the same mountain resort community where hundreds of homes were lost four years earlier.

As the fires spread, most out of control, smaller blazes were merging into larger, more fearsome ones. Evacuations were being announced in one community after another as firefighters found themselves overwhelmed by gale-force Santa Ana winds, some gusting to 70 mph.

The winds — which sweep through Southern California’s canyons in fall and winter — are stronger than normal, turning already parched scrubland into tinder.

The Department of Defense agreed to send six Air Force and Air National Guard water- or retardant-dropping planes Tuesday to aide the massive firefighting effort after a request by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Touring an evacuee camp at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, the governor pledged to do everything in his power to assist the firefighting effort and help those who have lost their homes.

“I will be relentless all the way through this,” Schwarzenegger said.

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Malibu Fire moving fast!

Malibu Fire

MALIBU, Calif. — Suzanne Somers‘ home was one of four destroyed by a wind-driven wildfire that swept through an exclusive seaside neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes, a spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

Firefighters were still at the scene watching for flareups Tuesday. In addition to those destroyed, four other houses were significantly damaged Monday, and one resident who was not identified was hospitalized for treatment of smoke inhalation.

A spokesman for Somers and her husband, Alan Hamel, confirmed that the flames destroyed the former “Three’s Company” actress’s house.

Click here for photos from the Malibu wildfires.

“It’s a total loss. The good news is Alan and Suzanne weren’t hurt,” a Hamel assistant said from the couple’s Port Carling Corp. office in Calabasas.

The burned properties were still smoldering Tuesday, and about 150 firefighters and arson investigators were on the scene.

The blaze had been fanned by Santa Ana wind as it raced through the celebrity enclave near Pepperdine University. “Red flag” fire danger warnings posted by the National Weather Service remained in effect for much of Southern California because of the strong wind and low humidity.

“I think they did a great job, the fire people. What can you do? It’s terrible,” said attorney George Roland, who also lost his home. Not much remained there Tuesday beyond a few trees and a pink front gate.

Fire officials didn’t identify the owners of the other destroyed houses, but actress Victoria Principal was among those who rushed out to hose down their homes after the fire was reported about 5 p.m. Monday.

Principal’s publicist, Alan Nierob, said her home wasn’t damaged. “She covered her house with water,” he said.

Victoria Pinero, co-owner of Little Angels Pet Services, which takes care of dogs and other animals, was housesitting at one of the homes destroyed in the blaze. She said she wasn’t home at the time the fire erupted, but rushed back to save the owners’ four dogs.

She said she found two dogs, but “we are still looking for the last two dogs. … We did everything we could,” she said, crying. “For these people, the dogs were basically their children.”

The blaze burned near the Malibu Colony, one of the area’s original beachfront neighborhoods, dating to the 1930s. The densely built stretch of luxury homes has been a favorite of celebrities over the years.

“Right now we cannot speculate about how this happened,” Inspector Rick Dominguez said early Tuesday.

Residents of Malibu include Mel Gibson, Pierce Brosnan, Pamela Anderson, Barbra Streisand, Ted Danson, David Geffen, and Courteney Cox-Arquette.

Malibu has frequently been the scene of devastating fires. In 1993, hundreds of homes were lost and three people were killed. A 1996 fire injured 11 people and destroyed six homes.

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