Firefighters need heat to drop

WITH towering flames bearing down on southern California mountain towns, firefighters last night dug in to protect hundreds of homes while praying for more help from lower temperatures.

In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, relentless flames engulfed hundreds of homes on Wednesday on a wind-driven march toward the resort towns of Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. Thousands of people were evacuated.

To the south, in San Diego County, the state's largest fire claimed the life of a firefighter when a crew was overcome by flames near Wynola. Three others were critically injured. "It just swept right over them. They probably didn't have time to get out of the way," Sergeant Conrad Grayson said.

Steve Rucker, a 38-year-old fire

engineer from the Novato Fire Protection District near San Francisco, died while battling the Cedar Fire, which has burned more than 250,000 acres and 1,400 homes.

He was the first firefighter among the 20 people who have died in the week of wildfires that have devastated parts of southern California. The fires have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and blackened more than 660,000 acres about 1,030sq miles

"It's like trying to control chaos," fire engineer Brian Janey of the Camp Pendleton fire department said as he battled the fire, which claimed about 350 homes in and around Cedar Glen, just east of Lake Arrowhead.

Firefighters were battling westerly winds from the Pacific Ocean, and smoke and ash spread as far as Phoenix, prompting officials there to warn the very young and very old to stay indoors. The cool, moist ocean breezes replaced the hotter and drier Santa Ana wind that had whipped fires into raging infernos at the weekend.

About 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian, a popular weekend getaway renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards.

But as winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near the town of 3,500 and forced crews to retreat. South of Julian, about 90% of the homes were destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents.

San Diego County officials have worried for days the Cedar Fire and the 49,800-acre Paradise Fire would merge into a huge blaze that would make it nearly impossible to keep it from reaching Julian.

In the past week fires burned in a broken arc across Southern California, from Ventura County east to the San Bernardino Mountains and south to eastern San Diego County. Seven fires were burning in four counties early yesterday. Some were believed set by arsonists. Nearly 12,000 firefighters and other personnel were fighting what Governor Gray Davis said may be the costliest disaster California has ever faced. The state is spending an estimated $9 million a day fighting the wildfires.

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