People return home as fires burn on

THOUSANDS of devastated evacuees were yesterday returning to what was left of their homes as fires continued to threaten other parts of southern California.

So far 1,800 houses have been destroyed by the wildfires that raced across nearly half a million acres fanned by desert winds.

Three people have been officially listed as having died in the fires and police are investigating whether four charred bodies, thought to be illegal immigrants, were killed by fires near the Mexican border.

The worst-hit area was San Diego County.

Officials have opened help centres in the hardest-hit communities, where displaced residents can get assistance with insurance, rebuilding and even mental health counselling.

“The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that,” a San Diego County spokeswoman said.

“The county and city of San Diego are committed to helping these people.”

President George W Bush toured the fire-ravaged area with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday in a show of federal support.

“We want the people to know there’s a better day ahead, that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life’s going to be better,” he said.

As the governor and president witnessed the devastation, the state came under criticism for failing to use all its water-bombing planes and helicopters in the wildfires’ crucial first hours.

More than 20 helicopters and two cargo planes sat idle as the flames spread, grounded by government rules and bureaucracy.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters could not fly for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting units to be accompanied by state forestry “fire spotters” who coordinate water drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds had made it too dangerous to fly.

The National Guard’s C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-needed alterations to fit giant water tanks, promised four years ago, have still not been completed.

Even as people began to return home and fire crews began mop-up duties in some areas, the wildfires continued to threaten homes in others. An aerial assault was helping firefighters corral two blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, a wooded resort area where 313 homes have been lost.

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