/ 29 October 2007

Fire-weary Californians mull next step

A week after a half-million people fled southern California’s wildfires, shelters began closing and residents were figuring out what to do next — even as firefighters kept a wary eye on the possibility of strong winds developing later in the week.

There was a chance of moderate Santa Anas — the fierce, dry winds that fuelled the flames last week — returning in the next seven days, forecasters said.

”It’s a little premature to be celebrating, that’s for sure,” California department of forestry and fire protection spokesperson Fred Daskoski said. ”We’re looking for full control within a week, but if we get any of these winds returning, there is a possibility that a couple of spots could have a blowout, and then we’d be off to the races again.”

The winds, which last week gusted up to 161km/h, pushed flames across more than 202 000ha, destroying more than 2 000 homes and forcing thousands into emergency shelters in seven Southern California counties.

By Sunday, the state office of emergency services tallied 2 767 structures destroyed. The number included 2 013 homes, office spokesperson Kim Oliver said.

With more than a dozen fires fully surrounded, firefighters were pushing to complete lines around seven others. Containment of those blazes ranged from 50% to 97%.

With nearly all mandatory evacuation orders lifted, wildfire victims have begun assessing damage and trying to figure out where to go next.

In San Diego, the largest remaining shelter is at the Del Mar fairgrounds, where about 130 evacuees were living, some of them after losing homes.

Many came from other shelters, including high schools preparing to reopen on Monday and Qualcomm Stadium, which was closed by the city of San Diego on Friday to prepare for the Chargers’ Sunday home game.

Seven deaths have been directly attributed to the fires, including those of four suspected illegal immigrants whose burned bodies were found near the United States-Mexico border on Thursday.

Eleven Mexicans were being treated at a San Diego hospital for burns suffered in the wildfires after they crossed the border illegally, the Mexican government confirmed on Saturday. Four were in critical condition.

Meanwhile, another US state, Hawaii, was contending with fires on Sunday. About 400 people who fled a raging brush fire were allowed to return to their homes along the coast of Hawaii’s largest island as firefighters sought to bring the blaze under control on Sunday.

No homes were damaged and no one was injured by the fires, which appeared to have been set early on Sunday along several kilometres of coastal highway, said Duane Hosaka, staff officer for Hawaii county civil defence.

Although the danger to seaside homes in the Puako community had passed, three fires continued to burn out of control on Sunday night over more than 800ha of land, said Hawaii county fire department battalion chief Jerry Lum. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Garance Burke in Crestline, Allison Hoffman and Bernie Wilson in San Diego, Aaron C Davis in El Cajon, and Jacob Adelman and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report