Poor air from wildfires a health threat

LOS ANGELES – Even as many of the wildfires in flame-ravaged Southern California died down and residents returned home, lingering dust and soot-laden air made it difficult for many to breathe even a sigh of relief Saturday.

Air quality remained poor in the central San Bernardino Mountains and parts of the San Bernardino Valley, as well as swaths of Orange and Riverside Counties. In San Diego County, where only two of five major fires was more than 50 percent contained, the air was especially dismal Friday.

That worried Joe Flynn, 48, as he prepared to return home to Ramona, northeast of San Diego, after he and thousands of other evacuees sought shelter Qualcomm Stadium this week.

But the pull to get back to normal was even stronger.

“Sure I’m worried about breathing that stuff up there,” he said. “It’s not cool but everyone is dying to get back home.”

Satellite pictures showed thick smoke continuing to hang over the entire region, affecting schools, events and the health of residents all over Southern California.

Residents staying in areas with bad air were advised to avoid exerting themselves. Children and people with heart and respiratory conditions were urged to stay indoors with the windows and doors closed and the air conditioner on.

“In the immediate aftermath of a fire, we’re all at risk of the fine particulate matter we can inhale,” said Julia Robinson Shimizu, a spokeswoman for Breathe L.A. “In general it’s good to limit outdoor strenuous activity at least seven days after the fires have ended.”

The University of California San Diego Medical Center saw an increase in patients coming in with breathing troubles they believe were related to air pollution, spokeswoman Jackie Carr said.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said the NFL’s San Diego Chargers would play Sunday’s game scheduled at Qualcomm. The stadium can seat more than 70,000 people.

But Ross Porter, a spokesman for the American Lung Association of California, urged fans to use caution when deciding whether to attend.

“Sometimes its better to sit quietly at home and watch it on TV,” he said.

Meanwhile, about 23,000 homes were still threatened by five major blazes in three counties. Altogether, more than a dozen fires raced across more than 503,000 acres — the equivalent of 786 square miles — although many of the blazes have been contained.

At least three people — and possibly as many as seven — have been killed by flames. About 1,700 homes have been destroyed and damage estimates have surpassed $1 billion.

On Friday, tens of thousands of displaced families began returning to their fire-ravaged communities, but it will likely be months or even years before they recover what they left behind when they fled giant walls of flames.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s office said he would appear Saturday at an Orange County fire command post to discuss efforts to find arsonists and to warn about charlatans peddling insurance scams to fire victims.

On Friday, the governor signed an executive order he said would cut red tape by directing state agencies to aid fire victims with such things as filing for tax extensions and unemployment insurance.

On the other side of the Cleveland National Forest, residents in the Riverside County town of Corona worried that flames they had watched on the news all week might reach them. They filled an elementary school Friday to hear that there was no imminent threat. Some packed valuables in their cars, just in case.

“Your feelings are real but we want to relieve some of that anxiety,” John Hawkins, Riverside County fire chief, told residents.

Also Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged Congressional leaders to provide an additional $1 billion for firefighting and fire recovery efforts.

The National Weather Service had some good news for firefighters: Winds were forecast to be light on Saturday, with highs hovering around 80 in most of the active fire areas.

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Some Calif. fire evacuees return home

SAN DIEGO – Thousands of evacuees from areas hard hit by this week’s Southern California wildfires were returning Friday to neighborhoods stripped bare, but other communities remained emptied because of blazes that remained threatening and unpredictable.

Southeast of San Diego, a fire that already has destroyed more than 1,000 homes was churning its way toward Julian. The town of 3,000, nestled in the rolling hills of a popular apple-growing region, was under mandatory evacuation.

East of San Diego, firefighters were trying to keep flames from Lake Morena, which is surrounded by hundreds of homes.

“Until you get a control line around each and every individual fire, there’s a potential of them blowing out anywhere,” said Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Fires in seven Southern California counties have raced across 494,355 acres — about 772 square miles — in less than a week. They were fanned earlier by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County, where several fires remained far from being fully contained . The property damage there alone surpassed $1 billion.

Shelters were clearing out Friday; the last of more than 10,000 displaced residents who sought refuge at Qualcomm Stadium were to have left by day’s end.

The NFL said it had decided against relocating Sunday’s game between the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Texans.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said the league informed him it intended to play the game as scheduled. The city would be able to provide enough public safety personnel to handle the game without impeding wildfire recovery efforts, Sanders said in a news release.

Officials have opened assistance centers where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and mental health counseling.

“The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that,” San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. “The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people.”

The state has come under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires’ crucial first hours. An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes were grounded by government rules and bureaucracy as flames spread.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry “fire spotters” who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made flying too dangerous.

Additionally, the National Guard‘s C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-needed retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.

“When you look at what’s happened, it’s disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that’s put tens of thousands of people in danger,” Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.

The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home. Seven people died of other causes connected to the evacuations.

Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.

Five people have been arrested for arson since wildfires broke out across Southern California this week, but none has been linked to any of the major blazes.

Among the structures threatened Friday was the Palomar Observatory in northern San Diego County. Crews were clearing brush and lighting back burns around the landmark building, Daskoski said.

The observatory, home to the world’s largest telescope when it was dedicated in 1948, did not appear to be in immediate danger, said observatory spokesman Scott Kardel, who had been evacuated but was in contact with staff who remained.

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Fire evacuees seek return to normal

SAN DIEGO – The NFL stadium where thousands of displaced residents sought refuge is closing as an evacuation center, a symbolic show of progress against wildfires still menacing Southern California.

Once sheltering more than 10,000 people, Qualcomm Stadium was home to just 350 on Friday morning. It was to close later in the day.

Across San Diego County, the region hardest hit by the firestorms that began last weekend, thousands of evacuees have been trickling back to neighborhoods stripped bare of houses, trees and the familiar signs of suburbia.

The lucky ones will find their homes still standing amid a blackened landscape. Others, like Robert Sanders, are not so fortunate.

The 56-year-old photographer returned to a smoldering mound that once was his rented house in the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo.

Among the possessions he lost to the flames and withering heat were his transparencies, melted inside a fire-resistant box, and a photograph of his father.

“I’ve lost my history,” Sanders said. “All the work I’ve done for the past 30 years, it’s all destroyed.”

Thousands of people lost their homes this week to the wildfires that left an arc of destruction from Ventura County to the Mexican border.

In all, fires raced across 490,000 acres — or 765 square miles, an area half the size of Rhode Island. They were fanned early in the week by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County. The property damage there alone has surpassed $1 billion.

Still unsettled is whether the San Diego Chargers will play their home game against the Houston Texans at Qualcomm on Sunday. Mayor Jerry Sanders said the stadium should be ready but indicated the decision will be made by the NFL and the team.

Officials have opened assistance centers in the hardest-hit communities, where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and even mental health counseling.

“The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that,” San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. “The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people.”

A show of the federal government’s support came Thursday when President Bush toured the fire-ravaged area with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bush pledged the government’s cooperation.

“We want the people to know there’s a better day ahead — that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life’s going to be better,” he said.

As the governor and president witnessed the devastation, the state came under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires’ crucial first hours.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes sat idle as flames spread, grounded by government rules and bureaucracy.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry “fire spotters” who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made it too dangerous to fly.

Additionally, the National Guard‘s C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-standing retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.

“When you look at what’s happened, it’s disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that’s put tens of thousands of people in danger,” Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.

The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home.

Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.

Even as evacuees returned home and fire crews began mop-up duties in some areas, the wildfires continued to threaten homes in others.

An aerial assault was helping firefighters corral two blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, a thickly wooded resort area where 313 homes have been lost.

Sean Clevenger’s home was a rare sight — part of an oasis of seven unburned houses in a neighborhood that was largely destroyed by fire in the mountain community of Running Springs.

“I still can’t believe this is my neighborhood,” he said, staring across the street at a plume of flames rising from a broken gas main amid rubble.

“Right there was a red house and everything was green around it,” he said. “Now I look out and I see a lot of sky through the trees.”

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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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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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California wildfire losses top $1 billion

By GILLIAN FLACCUS, Associated Press Writer

SAN DIEGO – The devastating wildfires in Southern California have caused at least $1 billion in damage in San Diego County alone, officials said Wednesday, as easing wind gave firefighters hope that they begin to gain ground against the flames.

The fires, now in their fourth day, have destroyed 1,500 homes and caused at least a half-million people to flee — the largest evacuation in state history. At least 1,200 of the damaged homes were in San Diego County, and officials believe that number will rise.

“Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster,” Ron Lane, San Diego County’s director of emergency services, told reporters during a news conference.

The announcement of San Diego‘s staggering losses came as President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California in the wake of the wildfires that have burned about 410,000 acres, or 640 square miles.

The declaration puts in motion long-term federal recovery programs to help state and local governments, families, individuals and certain nonprofit organizations recover.

“Americans all across this land care deeply about them,” the president said after a Cabinet meeting convened to coordinate federal relief efforts. “We’re concerned about their safety. We’re concerned about their property.”

The fierce Santa Ana wind that has stoked the explosive blazes had started to moderate slightly across the region Wednesday although stiff gusts continued to blow through some canyon areas. Forecasters said the wind eventually would be followed by cooling sea breezes.

The shift could allow for a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Crews were anticipating an injection of additional firefighters and equipment from other states, mostly throughout the West. Frustration over the firefighting effort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.

Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters’ lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.

“It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire,” he said.

Twenty-one firefighters and at least 24 others have been injured. One person was killed by the flames, and the San Diego medical examiner’s officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.

The state’s top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability of firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state’s nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Grijalva said the fires, spread by wind that at times topped 100 mph, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABC News reporter, and praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

“Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain because there’s a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here — we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government — and they can’t fly because of the wind situation.”

Thousands of people packed emergency shelters, where many had an agonizing wait to find out whether their homes had survived.

“I’m ready to go, but at the same time, I don’t want to go up there and be surprised,” said Mary Busch, 41, who did not know whether her home in Ramona, in San Diego County, was still standing. She has lived at the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium since Monday, sleeping in her SUV with her 11- and 8-year-old sons.

Others were eager to return to houses they were confident had survived.

“I called my home and my answering machine still works, so that’s how I know we’re OK,” said Rancho Bernardo resident Fuli Du, who packed his belongings Wednesday preparing to leave Qualcomm.

He spent his 41st birthday Tuesday at the stadium, where he has been living with his wife and two young sons.

More evacuation orders were issued Wednesday. Residents of the San Diego County communities of Fallbrook and Julian, an area devastated by a 2003 wildfire, were ordered out of their homes. Officials also were evacuating De Luz, an unincorporated community north of Camp Pendleton that was being threatened by a wildfire on the Marine base. The fire also closed Interstate 5 and the Metrolink commuter rail, snagging the morning commute.

However, residents were allowed to return to some areas of San Diego County including Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Del Mar, Encinitas and Solana Beach.

“There are some hot spots and issues there, but we wouldn’t be letting people go back if it weren’t safe,” county spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said.

The city of San Diego was assessing whether to allow people to return to their homes in Rancho Bernardo, one of the hardest-hit areas, Mayor Jerry Sanders said.

So far, the fires have inflicted the worst damage in San Diego County, where five blazes continued to burn. The largest fire had charred 196,420 acres — about 300 square miles — from Witch Creek to Rancho Santa Fe, destroying 650 homes, businesses and other buildings. Other hard-hit areas included San Bernardino County, where hundreds of homes burned in the mountain resort communities near Lake Arrowhead.

Source:Associated Press

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