/ 28 October 2007

Retreating California fires leave smoke hazard

Firefighters tightened their grip on California’s wildfires with the help of cooler weather, but a threat remained on Sunday of health hazards from choking plumes of smoke over the region.

Cooler temperatures, calmer winds and spots of drizzle allowed firefighters to staunch or contain most of the 23 fires that have erupted since last Sunday, leaving seven dead, destroying 1 800 homes and displacing 640 000 people.

Firefighting personnel have predicted that three major blazes could be brought under control within 10 days, offering the prospect of a return to normal after one of the worst fire disasters in Californian history.

However, Californians were still threatened by the side-effects of the fire, which has elevated air pollution levels to three times higher than normal, raising concern for the elderly, children and people with respiratory ailments.

Patricia Rey, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency, said authorities were advising people in fire-hit areas to stay indoors.

”For sensitive groups, we are trying to keep them inside, telling them to try to avoid prolonged exercise activities. If you can do it inside it will be better. Run the air conditioner rather than keep open windows,” she said.

”There are pockets of areas that are worse than others, but overall the advisories say they should really be concerned about outdoor activities.”

About 203 000ha of tinder-dry park and forest land have been incinerated by the firestorm.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said firefighters were buoyed by the weather conditions but remained vigilant. Figures released by the office on Saturday showed that 20 600 properties were under threat.

”The weather has enabled the fire personnel to make great progress but there is still a long way to go,” spokesperson Rochelle Jenkins said.

The National Weather Service has warned the weather could again pose problems for crews on Sunday, with less humidity and winds of 25km/h to 40km/h in canyons and passes.

”Critical fire weather persists across the mountains and interior valleys of southern California as Santa Ana winds continue,” it warned in an assessment on Saturday, referring to the hot, dry gusts that whipped up the blazes.

The fires are the worst to hit the state since 2003, when 22 people were killed and more than 3 000 homes lost in a series of blazes, at least two of which were believed to have been set deliberately.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said authorities would ruthlessly track down anyone suspected of starting a fire.

”If I were one of those people who started the fires I would not sleep soundly,” Schwarzenegger said. ”We’re right behind you — turn yourself in.”

San Diego County officials, meanwhile, said on Saturday that 640 000 people, sharply higher than previous estimates of 500 000, had been displaced in the disaster.

Nearly 3 000 people remained in temporary shelters across the state as many people returned to find their homes reduced to piles of ash and rubble.

Hundreds of mental health experts have fanned out across the state to offer counselling and support to the thousands of people affected.

”Some of them are overwhelmed, very sad, stressed, angry, frustrated,” said Karen Hoganson, a Red Cross mental health supervisor who spent the past few days counselling people at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.

California officials have set up a special task force to investigate insurance- and contract-fraud matters as well as con-artists who pretend to be claims adjusters of contractors.

”We are going after the scam artists, price gougers, shady contractors and anyone else who preys on people hurt by these fires,” Schwarzenegger said.

”If anyone tries to exploit this tragedy I will make sure you will pay for rest of your life,” he added. ”We will arrest them and we will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

San Diego County officials have put the cost of property damage at more than $1-billion although insurance industry analysts have said it may go as high as $1,6-billion. — AFP