/ 24 October 2007

Weather break to help battle California firestorm

After three days of a vicious firestorm, exhausted firefighters and weary residents looked forward on Wednesday to a break — an expected slackening of the gale-force winds that have ignited California’s largest complex of wildland blazes.

Forecasters said the Santa Ana winds that have fanned flames across southern California would begin to weaken late on Wednesday afternoon, followed by cooling sea breezes. The series of 16 wildfires has destroyed nearly 1 300 homes.

”By Thursday, we’re expecting it to be pretty much over,” said Noel Isla, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s San Diego office.

The welcome forecast of lower temperatures and lighter winds will be accompanied by an injection of additional firefighters and equipment from other states. Frustration over the firefighting effort erupted on 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.

The fires have injured 21 firefighters and at least 24 others. 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 winds that at times topped 160km/h, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABC News reporter.

”Anybody 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.”

He praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border. The wind-driven fires had burned 165 925ha, causing at least $100-million in damage.

Mass evacuation

The wildfires have led to the largest evacuation in California’s history, with more than 500 000 people forced to flee their homes. Thousands packed evacuation centres.

San Diego school officials announced that all classes and programmes would be cancelled for the rest of the week ”due to the continued extreme fire conditions and unhealthy air”.

Late on Tuesday night, officials issued a new round of mandatory evacuations in the San Diego county communities of Fallbrook and Julian, an area devastated by a 2003 wildfire. Water and electricity in the town were cut off.

Dozens of additional fire engines and hundreds more firefighters, as well as at least six more aircraft, were expected to arrive on Wednesday from other states, mostly throughout the West.

Winds could reach 80km/h in mountain passes early on Wednesday and blow erratically, presenting an especially daunting challenge to firefighters battling out-of-control blazes in San Diego county and the mountain resorts east of Los Angeles.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, touring an evacuation centre at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, said he hoped the slackening winds expected late on Wednesday would allow a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes.

”If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide,” he said. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Chelsea J Carter, Jeremiah Marquez, Daisy Nguyen, Robert Jablon and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles, Martha Mendoza in Lake Arrowhead, Jacob Adelman in Santa Clarita, Elliot Spagat and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego, Pauline Arrillaga in Del Mar and Ryan Pearson in Lake Forest contributed to this report