Wildfire death toll rises as crew finds 2 burned bodies
Associated Press Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) ” Crews found two burned bodies in a gutted house, authorities said Thursday, and flames drew perilously close to thousands of homes in Southern California’s firestorm despite a break in the harsh winds and a massive aerial assault.
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. They were believed to be related, officials said.
Neighbors told officials they last saw the pair around midnight Monday when they told the two to evacuate, Caldwell said. They were reported missing sometime after that.
Flames also claimed the life of a 52-year-old man in Tecate. The San Diego medical examiner’s office listed seven 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.
The grim announcement came as the firefighters, aided by the calming Santa Ana winds and dropping temperatures, looked to gain control of some of the most severe fires. Firefighters had lost ground overnight on one Orange County blaze.
Some 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.
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.
But electricity was a concern. A wildfire cut a main power link with Arizona, while another blaze near Camp Pendleton was threatening the main north-south power corridor that connects San Diego with the rest of California. Additional power was being shipped from Mexico, said Sempra Utilities Chief Operating Officer Michael Niggli.
Even with the slackening winds, the San Diego County remains a tinderbox. Firefighters cut fire lines around the major blazes, 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 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.
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 total burn area of more than 482,000 acres ” about 753 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.
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.
In the middle of the arc of fire, the Santiago Fire in Orange County had burned nearly 23,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. It had been 50 percent contained Wednesday, but firefighters lost ground overnight as it moved into the Cleveland National Forest.
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.
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.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.
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