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Flames drew close toward thousands of homes in Southern California's firestorm today, despite a break in the harsh winds and a massive aerial assault that raised evacuees' hopes of going home for good.
The hot, dry Santa Ana winds that have whipped the blazes into a destructive, indiscriminate fury since the weekend were expected to all but disappear today.
"That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts," National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.
The recent record high temperatures began succumbing to cooling sea breezes, and two fires that burned 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County were fully contained.
Electricity was another concern. A wildfire cut a main power link with Arizona, while another blaze near Camp Pendleton was threatening the main north-south power corridor that connects San Diego with the rest of California. Additional power was being shipped from Mexico, said Sempra Utilities Chief Operating Officer Michael Niggli.
About 19,500 customers were without power Wednesday either because of downed lines or to ensure the safety of firefighters, officials said.
Even with the slackening winds, the county remains a tinderbox. Firefighters cut fire lines around the major blazes in San Diego County, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained. More than 8,500 homes were still threatened.
Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003.
To the northeast, in the San Bernardino County mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said 6,000 homes remained in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.
The fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters that dumped more than 30 loads of water.
President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, was scheduled today to take an aerial tour of the burn areas with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"It's a sad situation out there in Southern California," Bush said outside the White House before leaving for California. "I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts. They just need to know a lot of folks care about them."
So far, at least 15 fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes in Southern California since late Saturday.
The burn area of nearly 460,000 acres &
about 719 square miles &
stretches in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Losses total at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and include a third of the state's avocado crop. The losses are half as high as those in Southern California's 2003 fires, but are certain to rise.
The more hopeful news on the fire lines came a day after residents in some hard-hit San Diego County neighborhoods were allowed back to their streets, many lined with the wreckage of melted cars.
In upscale Rancho Bernardo, house after house had been reduced to a smoldering heap. Cheryl Monticello, 38 and eight months pregnant, had to see for herself that her home was gone. Only the white brick chimney and her daughter's backyard slide survived the inferno.
"You really need to see it to know for sure," Monticello said Wednesday.
Running Springs resident Ricky Garcia returned to his house in the San Bernardino Mountains on Wednesday, panicked that his street had been wiped out and his cats, Jeff and Viper, were lost.
But his house, newly built on a cleared lot, was unscathed, unlike those of his neighbors. Hiding underneath a porch and mewing loudly was Jeff, his long, black hair gray with ash. Viper was nowhere in sight.
"I'm excited to see my cat and my house, but absolutely devastated for my neighbors," he said, preparing to evacuate again.
As nature's blitzkrieg starts to recede, many of the other refugees will be allowed back to their neighborhoods. More than 500,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County alone, part of the largest mass evacuation in California history.
"We are focusing more on recovery and getting these people back up on their feet again," County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said.
In the middle of the arc of fire, the Santiago Fire in Orange County had burned nearly 20,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. Only 50 percent contained, it is a suspected arson fire.
Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to help investigate. Authorities said a smaller, more recent fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.
Police shot and killed a man who fled Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire in the city of San Bernardino. The man, whose name was not released, had led police on a chase then backed his car into a police cruiser, San Bernardino police said.
Despite the widespread destruction, the fires have directly claimed just one life, 52-year-old Thomas Varshock of Tecate. The San Diego medical examiner's office listed five other deaths as connected to the blazes because all who died were evacuees.
The number of victims could rise as authorities return to neighborhoods where homes burned. In 2003, 22 people lost their lives in a series of fires that lasted nearly two weeks.
Lighter winds give Calif. firefighters hope
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