Arsonists are to blame for at least three of the raging fires in southern California that have so far claimed the lives of 20 people and destroyed more than 2,600 homes, authorities said.
Investigators say they have received more than 500 tips, stopped dozens of cars and questioned a handful of men, but are yet to make any arrests.
Yesterday, the San Bernardino County sheriff’s office issued a description of a suspect – a thin, blonde man in his 20s who witnesses say stepped out of a grey van last Saturday, dropped something into the brush causing a fire, then climbed back into the van before it sped away. That wildfire has grown to about 50,000 acres, killing four people and destroying 850 homes.
Dozens of federal, state and local arson detectives have been working around the clock, talking to witnesses at evacuation centres, studying burn patterns where the fires began, and calling for public help.
Forest Service agent Jerry Moore said a man had confessed to starting a Ventura County fire that burned three homes and 68,000 acres, but the case remained under investigation.
San Diego County authorities, meanwhile, said they are positive a wildfire that has so far killed 14 people, including a firefighter, and burned nearly 1,500 homes was sparked by a lost deer hunter who set a signal blaze. He was given a misdemeanour citation.
Fog and drizzle came to the rescue of firefighters labouring to save resort towns in southern California.
“It is helping, but it is a long way from putting any fires out,” Ray Snodgrass, chief deputy director of the California Forestry Department, said yesterday. “It’s the respite we were hoping for.”
But the forecast also called for gusting winds that could drive the flames into more homes.
Firefighters dug in to protect hundreds of homes still threatened in San Bernardino and San Diego counties. But only a few hundred acres of thick forest were burned overnight by one of the most devastating and erratic of the fires - a 50,000-acre blaze east of Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains.
The wildfires have blazed for more than a week across southern California, destroying more than 2,600 homes and blackening around 730,000 acres. Yesterday, seven major fires were still burning in four counties.
On Wednesday, wind-driven flames burned about 350 homes in Cedar Glen in the San Bernardinos.
Yesterday morning, the fire had advanced to within 12 miles of the mountain resort town of Big Bear as crews spread fire-resistant gel on houses and cleared debris around them. They were helped by a heavy fog that rolled in overnight. The forecast called for highs in the mid-50s Fahrenheit (13 Celsius), down from over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) over the weekend.
“So that’s the good news, but there is a red-flag warning for high winds up to 40 mph,” said Bonni Corcoran, a fire information officer.
In San Diego County, where the state’s largest fire killed a firefighter on Wednesday, many of his comrades wore black bands on their badges. Steve Rucker, 38, died while battling a blaze that has burned more than 270,000 acres and some 1,500 homes. He was the first firefighter to die in this outbreak of fires.
About 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. Saving the town of 3,500, a popular weekend getaway renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards, was the county’s top priority.
A blaze of more than 100,000 acres on the line between Ventura and Los Angeles counties was winding down, with cooler weather and high humidity helping firefighters knock down the flames that had come within a few feet of homes.
“I think we’re going to nail this one today,” said Los Angeles County fire Battalion Chief Scott Poster.
In all, nearly 12,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Governor Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.
The state is spending an estimated 9 million US dollars (€7.7m) a day fighting the wildfires, a near doubling of the estimate just two days ago. The total cost of fighting the fires could reach 200 million dollars (€171m), and the toll on the California economy has been put at 2 billion dollars (€1.7bn).