California fire fight far from over
SAN DIEGO The Santa Ana winds that helped fires explode across Southern California were dying down Thursday, but the fight was far from over: Despite a massive aerial assault, several blazes remained far from containment as flames drew perilously close to thousands of homes.Some of the hundreds of thousands of evacuees were being allowed back into their neighborhoods, and shelters were emptying. Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, which sheltered more than 10,000 people at the height of the evacuations, had just 2,500 people left Thursday morning.Crews found two burned bodies in a gutted house north of San Diego, authorities said Thursday, raising the number of deaths directly caused by the fire to three. The San Diego medical examiner’s office listed seven other deaths as connected to the blazes because all who died were evacuees.More than 482,000 acres about 753 square miles were burned 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 San Diego County, which received the worst of the fires, crews cut fire lines around the major blazes, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained and more than 8,500 homes remained threatened.To the northeast, in the San Bernardino County mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said 16,000 homes were in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.The fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters that dumped more than 30 loads of water.In Orange County, firefighters lost ground overnight on a nearly 23,000-acre fire.President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, took an aerial tour of the burn areas with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.”It’s a sad situation out there in Southern California,” Bush said outside the White House before leaving for California. “I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts. They just need to know a lot of folks care about them.”So far, at least 15 fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes in Southern California since late Saturday.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. “That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.Officials continued to lift evacuation orders, the latest in Escondido, which was particularly hard hit.Despite the improving news, nearly 18,000 customers in the San Diego area remained without power Thursday. A San Diego Gas & Electric Co. helicopter attempting to restore power crashed Thursday morning, but all four people aboard escaped injury. The cause of the crash wasn’t immediately known.Medical examiners were trying to establish the identities of the man and woman whose bodies were found near Poway, north of San Diego, said Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Jan Caldwell. The bodies were found in a cinderblock, garage-sized building behind a home that sits alone atop a hill overlooking the San Diego Wild Animal Park.The pair are believed to be related, officials said. Neighbors said they last saw them around midnight Monday when they told the two to evacuate, according to Caldwell.Flames also claimed the life of a 52-year-old man in Tecate.Economic 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.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, newly 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 was nowhere in sight.”I’m excited to see my cat and my house, but absolutely devastated for my neighbors,” he said, preparing to evacuate again.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.”We are focusing more on recovery and getting these people back up on their feet again,” County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said.Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to help investigate the Orange County fire, which is suspected to be arson. Authorities said a smaller, more recent fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.Two men, in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, have been arrested this week after police alleged they started small fires.Police shot and killed a man who fled Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire in San Bernardino. The man, whose name was not released, had led police on a chase then backed his car into a police cruiser, police said.Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Martha Mendoza in Running Springs, Scott Lindlaw in Julian, and Jacob Adelman, Thomas Watkins and Jeremiah Marquez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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