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Winds down, hopes up in wildfire battles

Arson investigated in several fires; 426,000 acres scorched

BY P.J. HELLER | CASTAIC, Calif. | October 25, 2007

Santa Ana winds eased Wednesday, providing some welcome relief for weary firefighters across Southern California as they battled major wildfires for a fourth day.

Even so, fires in Orange County, San Diego County and San Bernardino County burned fiercely and new evacuations were ordered in some areas. Fires at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base forced the temporary closure of Interstate 5.

The largest of the fires was the Witch blaze in San Diego County, which has burned more than 196,000 acres and was just 1 percent contained. The Harris fire, which has burned 73,000 acres in the county, was 10 percent contained.

In the Lake Arrowhead area, two separate fires have charred some 15,000 acres and destroyed at least 300 homes.

In Los Angeles County, three of the major fires that had been burning there, including the 4,500-acre blaze in Malibu that destroyed six homes and damaged nine others, were fully contained and evacuation orders were lifted. The Ranch fire near Castaic, which has burned more than 51,000 acres, grew to 78 percent containment by Wednesday night.

"The winds have abated quite a bit," said Paul Slenkamp of Ketchikan, Alaska, who was working the Ranch fire and was among the out-of-state firefighters brought in to help.

In a sign of progress, the Veterans Memorial Hall in Fillmore, which had been serving as an evacuation center for the Ranch fire, was empty Wednesday morning. Volunteers there were prepared to deal with several hundred evacuees but only had about three dozen people show up at the height of the fire. The shelter closed at 6 p.m.

"We've been saying, 'No clients, that's good, that's good,'" said Bettye Berg, a volunteer with the American Red Cross. "Much better than having several hundred people here because their homes are in danger."

Berg said there was a strong outpouring of support from the community, including businesses and faith-based organizations.

"We had several pastors who had stopped by there to see if there were any people who needed counseling or other kinds of assistance," she added "They were all on hand and ready to do whatever was needed."

The number of people being sheltered at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, also declined.

Officials said the fires have burned an estimated 426,000 acres in seven counties. The latest revised figures they have showed that the fires have destroyed 1,660 structures, 1,436 of them homes. Another 25,000 structures remained threatened, according to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nearly 8,900 firefighters were on the fire lines. Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated.

The majority of those losses have come in San Diego County, where officials said the loss of homes, alone, would exceed $1 billion.

One death in San Diego County has been directly attributed to the fires. Five other deaths of evacuees were reported there, the latest one on Wednesday. In Orange County, officials reported two badly burned bodies were discovered at a brush fire that broke out Wednesday morning. The cause of death was not determined.

As residents in some areas began returning to their homes or what was left of them state officials announced that four local assistance centers would open in San Diego County. The centers will provide information to residents about assistance from federal, state, local and nonprofit agencies as well as insurance companies.

President Bush, meantime, was scheduled to visit fire-stricken Southern California on Thursday. Bush on Wednesday approved a major disaster declaration for Southern California.

In Orange County, agents with the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms along with local law enforcement and the Orange County Fire Authority, were investigating the Santiago fire.

The blaze, which officials have said was arson, has burned some 22,000 acres and damaged or destroyed 22 homes and 20 other structures. Mandatory evacuations were in place throughout the area with 43,000 people evacuated. Containment on the fire dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent late Wednesday.

A $70,000 reward was initially offered for information leading to an arrest of the person or persons responsible for the fire, but was later withdrawn, news reports said, because officials had not decided on the exact amount of the reward.

Authorities in San Bernardino County reported the arrest of a 48-year-old arson suspect in connection with a fire in Hesperia. That blaze was quickly extinguished. They also reported that another man spotted in a brushy area near Cal State San Bernardino was shot and killed Tuesday night after he attempted to flee the area and then rammed a police car.

In Riverside County, officials said they believe the Rosa fire, which burned 400 acres, was arson. The fire, which started late Monday, was fully contained Wednesday night.

Some looting was reported in San Diego County.

Firefighters were buoyed by the improving weather conditions. Winds, that at one time gusted to 80 mph, were blowing about 15 to 25 mph on Wednesday. Although temperatures remained high Wednesday, they were expected to cool down beginning Thursday.

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