With towering flames bearing down on Southern California mountain towns, firefighters dug in to protect hundreds of homes today praying for help from lower temperatures.
In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, relentless flames had engulfed hundreds of homes 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. Three other crew members were critically injured.
Steve Rucker, 38, died while battling the Cedar Fire, which has burned more than 250,000 acres and destroyed 1,400 homes.
He was the first firefighter among the 20 people who have died in the week of wildfires that have devastated Southern California.
The fires have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and blackened more than 60,000 acres – about 1,030 square miles.
“It’s like trying to control chaos,” fire Engineer Brian Janey of the Camp Pendleton Fire Department said as he battled the Old Fire, which claimed about 350 homes.
In all, nearly 12,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Governor Gray Davis said may be the costliest disaster California has ever faced.
The total cost of fighting the fires could reach £120m (€174.6m), while the blazes take a £1.2bn (€1.74bn) toll on the California economy, state officials said.
Cool, moist ocean breezes today replaced the hotter and drier Santa Ana wind that had whipped fires into raging infernos over the weekend.
Fog covered parts of the San Bernardino Mountains, and some light rain was reported there and on Southern California’s other major front in the mountains of eastern San Diego County.
Temperatures were expected to remain below 20C (mid-50s F), further aiding the firefighting effort.