Death toll rises as California burns

Ash fell on the beach like snow as California’s deadliest outbreak of fires in more than a decade destroyed more than 1,100 homes, killed at least 15 people and consumed land from south of the Mexican border to the suburbs north of Los Angeles.

Ash fell on the beach like snow as California’s deadliest outbreak of fires in more than a decade destroyed more than 1,100 homes, killed at least 15 people and consumed land from south of the Mexican border to the suburbs north of Los Angeles.

Several more people suffered burns and smoke inhalation, including eight admitted to hospital in San Diego. Two had burns over more than 55% of their bodies.

The fires were also burning south of the border, where two people were killed in a fire near the Mexican coastal city of Ensenada that destroyed about 15 homes.

Managers of California’s power grid estimated that 70,000 to 85,000 Southern California customers were without electricity because fires had damaged transmission lines.

President George Bush designated the fire-stricken region a major disaster area, opening the door to grants, loans and other aid to residents and businesses.

“This is a devastating fire and it’s a dangerous fire. And we’re prepared to help in any way we can,” Bush said at the White House.

“This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it,” said Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services.

California Governor Gray Davis, who toured the fire area in San Bernardino County, moved to activate the National Guard and summon help from neighbouring states. He predicted the cost of the fires would be in the billions.

More than 480,000 acres were charred in Southern California, authorities said. Mexican authorities reported that nearly 4,000 acres of mainly brush land were consumed over the last two days.

Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would go to Washington today to meet officials “to make sure that the federal money will come through.”

The death toll jumped from 13 to 15 last night after the bodies of two people were found on a road near San Diego.

Many of those who died in the wildfires ignored evacuation orders and were caught by flames because they waited until the last minute to flee, Sheriff Bill Kolender said.

A 90,000-acre wildfire that straddles the Los Angeles-Ventura county line began moving slowly toward million-dollar mansions in a gated community in Los Angeles.

California Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Thomas Foley said that in a “worst-case scenario,” the blaze could spread all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The dry, hot Santa Ana winds that have fanned the flames began to ease in some areas last night, raising hopes that overwhelmed firefighters could make progress with the help of reinforcements on their way from other Western states.

But the danger was still high.

Across Southern California, the sun glowed red and smoke stung the eyes and lungs. Airport baggage handlers wore masks against the smoke and the ash dropping across the landscape.

“My eyes are burning right now something terrible,” said 74-year-old Maury Glantz in San Diego, holding a towel over his mouth and nose. “I have to get out.”

Even the primates at the San Diego Zoo went indoors to escape the misery. “Their lungs are built like ours so they can be affected by the smoke,” said zoo spokeswoman Yadira Galindo.

San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said he was worried that three fires that incinerated 585 homes in San Diego County would merge into a super fire, pushing already strained resources to the breaking point.

A state of emergency was declared in the four stricken counties, where the fires had laid waste to entire blocks of homes, closed major highways, shuttered schools, disrupted air travel nationwide and sent people running for their lives.

People were urged to stay indoors because of the smoky air, and hospitals treated a number of people who complained of breathing trouble.

Eleven people were killed by the so-called Cedar Fire, California’s largest blaze at 150,000 acres.

The fire was ignited Saturday near the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter set off a signal fire, authorities said. The hunter may face charges.

A major fire burning closer to Los Angeles is believed to have been started by arsonists.

“Those who start these fires are no better than domestic terrorists and should be dealt with as such,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Days after running for her life from a fire that ripped through her San Bernardino neighbourhood, Pati Wecker returned home in the Del Rosa area to find the only thing left standing of her house was an archway.

Across the street, a park with green grass and trees was untouched.

Digging through the ruins of her home, Wecker found an untouched porcelain angel and two beer steins. A burned photo album crumbled when she picked it up.

Her husband was killed in Vietnam and she raised her six children in the home that is known in the neighbourhood as Momma’s House.

“They all said we will build another house,” said Wecker, 69.

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