Cool weather fails to tame raging fires

THE hot Santa Ana wind that has been driving California’s most destructive wildfires in history was giving way to cooler, more humid conditions yesterday, but that did little to tame the blazing tide as crews fought to save more homes.

Dense morning fog mixed with the heavy smoke hanging over San Diego as Pacific air moved in, but an expected change in wind direction was likely to push fires in new, dangerous directions.

Gusts up to 35 mph were forecast in San Diego County, where firefighters heading out to the lines were warned to be careful.

"There are so many hazards out there, we can't identify them all for you," state safety officer John Simons told crews.

Southern California's mountains still glowed red as out-of-control fires devoured dying forests, chasing evacuees into smoky traffic jams as they fled their alpine communities by the tens of thousands.

The San Bernardino range east of Los Angeles and the mountains of eastern San Diego County were the focal points in the long arc of wildfires that have roared over more than 567,000 acres (about 890 square miles), nearly the area of Rhode Island.

At least 16 people have died since October 21, and more than 1,600 homes have been destroyed. Glenn Wagner, San Diego County chief medical examiner, said he expects the death toll to rise as crews inspect hundreds of charred homes.

"I'm sure we're going to find folks who simply never had a chance to get out of their houses," Mr Wagner said.

The state's biggest blaze, the 210,000-acre Cedar Fire in San Diego County, had already destroyed 200 to 300 homes on the south side of Julian, a Cuyamaca Mountains town of 3,500 Firefighters made a stand yesterday to save the rest of the town, said sheriff's spokesman Chris Saunders.

The Cedar Fire, with a 45-mile-long front, was just miles from merging with a 40,000-acre fire near Escondido, west of Julian.

That fire had grown from 37,000 acres late Tuesday but was 20% contained, said Kathleen Schori, a spokeswoman for the Department of Forestry.

Ten miles south of Julian, about 90% of the homes had been destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents, said Chief Bill Clayton of the State Department of Forestry.

"I'm sad to say the community of Cuyamaca was destroyed this afternoon," Mr Clayton told reporters In the San Bernardino Mountains, firefighters set backfires along a narrow highway, hoping to burn out fuel needed by the wildfire moving up from below. But the fire still jumped the road. Fire burning up the south face of the range threatened resort communities from Lake Arrowhead east to Big Bear Lake. Some 80,000 residents have evacuated since the weekend Mandatory evacuations were ordered during the night for residents of the Summit Valley area northwest of Lake Arrowhead, but residents of some communities on the other side of the mountains were allowed to return, said Candace Vialpando, a fire information officer.

The fire danger was particularly high in the San Bernardino National Forest because millions of trees have been killed by drought and a devastating infestation of bark beetles.

Changing weather offered both problems and promise. Cooler, moist air off the ocean was expected to replace the hot and dry Santa Ana winds that whipped blazes into firestorms Highs only in the 60s were forecast for parts of

the San Bernardino Mountains But wind off the ocean could push fires east instead of south and west, said Brandt Maxwell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. It will take until Friday, Maxwell said, before the moist wind raises humidity in the mountain areas "We do have westerly winds that will continue to push the fire upwards into the communities of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear," said Carol Beckley of fire information for the Old Fire in San Bernardino County.

"It really could become catastrophic if the winds continue." More than 11,000 firefighters were on the lines of what Governor Gray Davis said may be the costliest disaster California has ever faced.

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