1,500 homes lost; $1B loss in San Diego area
The Associated Press; The Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — Property damage from this week's devastating Southern California wildfires totals at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, officials said today.
"Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster," Ron Lane, San Diego County's director of emergency services, told reporters during a news conference.
He said at least 1,200 homes had been destroyed in the county, a number officials believed would rise. That brings to roughly 1,500 the number of homes destroyed in the seven-county region that has been ablaze since Sunday.
The announcement of San Diego's staggering losses came as President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California in the wake of wildfires that have burned about 410,000 acres and forced close to a million people to evacuate.
Exhausted firefighters hoped fighting the 16 blazes would become easier today with an expected slackening of fierce Santa Ana wind that has stoked the explosive blazes.
Forecasters said the wind will begin to weaken late this afternoon, followed by cooling sea breezes. The shift could allow for a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
"If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide," he said.
Some of the half-million people chased from their homes by the flames were being allowed to their neighborhoods.
Forecasters said the Santa Ana wind whipping across Southern California would begin to weaken late this afternoon, followed by cooling sea breezes. The 16 wind-driven wildfires have forced the largest evacuation in the state's history.
The shift could allow for a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during a tour of an evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
"If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide," he said.
Crews were anticipating an injection of additional firefighters and equipment from other states, mostly throughout the West. Frustration over the firefighting effort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.
Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters' lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.
"It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire," he said.
The fires have burned 410,000 acres, or about 640 square miles, causing at least $100 million in damage. Twenty-one firefighters and at least 24 others have been injured. One person was killed by the flames, and the San Diego medical examiner's officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.
The state's top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability of firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state's nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Grijalva said the fires, spread by wind that at times topped 100 mph, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABC News reporter, and praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.
"Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain because there's a bunch of nonsense," he said. "The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here — we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government — and they can't fly because of the wind situation."
Thousands of evacuees packed emergency shelters, where many had an agonizing wait to find out whether their homes had survived.
"I'm ready to go, but at the same time, I don't want to go up there and be surprised," said Mary Busch, 41, who did not know whether her home was still standing in Ramona, in San Diego County. She has been at the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium since Monday, sleeping in her SUV with her 11- and 8-year-old sons.
"I feel safe there," she said today. "It's all I have. I don't have any way to know what happened to my house."
Some others were confident their homes had survived.
"I called my home and my answering machine still works, so that's how I know we're OK," said Rancho Bernardo resident Fuli Du, who packed his belongings today preparing to leave Qualcomm.
He spent his 41st birthday Tuesday at the stadium, where he has been stay with his wife and two young sons.
"I don't know when I'll be able to go back, but I'm ready to go home," he said.
At the Del Mar Fairgrounds in northern San Diego County, which was converted into a shelter, many stared at television sets blaring reports from the fire lines and damaged neighborhoods.
"I've got two reports: One person told me it's gone, and one person said it's still there," said J.C. Playford, who left his home in San Diego County. "So I have no idea."
Evacuation orders continued today. Residents of the San Diego County communities of Fallbrook and Julian, an area devastated by a 2003 wildfire, were ordered out of their homes.
Officials also were evacuating De Luz, an unincorporated community north of Camp Pendleton that was threatened by a wildfire on the Marine base. That fire also closed Interstate 5 and the Metrolink commuter rail, snagging the morning commute.
Residents of some San Diego County neighborhoods were gradually being allowed to return, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said at a news conference.
Many returned Tuesday to two evacuated neighborhoods in San Diego — Del Mar Heights, near the ocean, and Scripps Ranch — as well as an evacuated portion of the city of Poway. No homes were lost in these particular neighborhoods.
So far, the fires have inflicted the worst damage in San Diego County, where five blazes continued to burn. The largest fire had consumed 196,420 acres — about 300 square miles — from Witch Creek to Rancho Santa Fe, destroying 650 homes, businesses and other buildings. Other hard-hit areas included San Bernardino County, where hundreds of homes burned in the mountain resort communities near Lake Arrowhead.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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