/ 26 October 2007

Firefighters report progress in scorched California

Firefighters were on Friday edging towards victory in their battle against California wildfires that left nine people dead, gutted 1 800 homes and caused over $1-billion in damage.

Cooler temperatures and calmer winds have allowed firefighters to staunch or contain most of the 23 fires that erupted since Sunday, triggering the evacuation of more than 500 000 people, the biggest in California history.

About 20 000 homes remained classified as threatened by the 10 active fires burning throughout the region, but officials said they were on course to break the back of the blazes, which have scorched 186 000ha.

”We’re hoping to turn the tide soon,” said Jose Alvarez of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services.

Firefighters cautioned, however, that success hinged on the weather.

”If the wind stays normal, everything will be fine,” Mike Rohde, a battalion chief fighting the 10 500-acre Santiago fire in Orange County, told the Los Angeles Times. If not it would be a ”different story”, he added.

United States President George Bush toured parts of the hardest-hit areas on Thursday, stopping in San Diego where he met rescue workers, firefighters and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The fires are the worst to hit California since 2003, when 22 people were killed and more than 3 000 homes lost in a series of blazes.

With diminished winds, an aerial armada of helicopters and tanker planes was able to fly non-stop, dropping water and fire retardants on blazes across the region on Thursday, part of a wider effort involving 10 700 firefighters.

So far nine people have been confirmed killed in the crisis, according to an Agence France-Presse tally based on statements from Schwarzenegger and figures from San Diego County authorities.

Border Patrol agents discovered the charred bodies of three men and a woman in a rugged region near the Mexican border. Officials said late on Thursday the four dead may have been illegal immigrants attempting to cross the border.

US and Mexican authorities for days have been warning would-be illegal immigrants about the dangers of trying to sneak north across the border.

Other victims include a couple who ignored requests from neighbours to evacuate their home in the San Diego suburb of Poway, one of the worst-hit areas across the state.

San Diego County officials said the damage to property was more than $1-billion, although insurance industry analysts have said it may go as high as $1,6-billion.

San Diego has emerged as the ground zero of the crisis, where the bulk of hundreds of thousands of evacuations have taken place.

Evacuees have begun streaming home throughout the week, and major relief centres were beginning to wind down operations on Friday, officials said.

The causes of the different fires vary, from a fallen power line to suspected arson. In Orange County, a $250 000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist.

Smoke had drifted north all the way to the state capital of Sacramento by Thursday, reports said, and pollution was also expected to eventually drift over the gambling mecca of Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Mexican firefighters just south of the border continued to battle a wildfire after bringing six blazes under control, a federal official said.

A blaze from San Diego jumped the international border into Mexico earlier this week and forced the closure of sections of a highway between the cities of Tijuana and Tecate. — AFP