Weather change helps US fire teams

Firefighters were given a breathing space in their battle against the blazes sweeping Southern California today.

Firefighters were given a breathing space in their battle against the blazes sweeping Southern California today.

The winds fuelling the sprawling wildfires finally dropped allowing crews to concentrate on extinguishing existing areas rather than being tied up in a running battle against their spread.

Property damage has reached at least €1bn (€700m) in San Diego County alone, and President Bush, who is due to tour the region today, signed a major disaster declaration for California.

Amazingly only one person has been killed by the flames, compared to 22 in similar circumstances in 2003.

Although the final toll has yet to be counted from this week’s fires, officials were crediting an automated, reverse telephone calling system that prompted the orderly evacuation of more than half a million people – 10 times the number evacuated four years ago.

Yesterday winds dropped to less than 30 mph, considerably less than the fierce gusts of up to 100 mph earlier in the week.

The better weather allowed for a greater aerial assault on the flames and helped firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes. Helicopters and air tankers dropped 30 to 35 loads of water on two fires that have burned hundreds of homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Lake Arrowhead.

Firefighters had fully contained the three major fires in Los Angeles County by nightfall, and largely contained several smaller fires north of San Diego, though large fires were still burning almost unchecked.

Despite the progress, none of the six major blazes in San Diego County was under control. One in San Bernardino County threatened 6,000 homes.

The causes of many fires remained under investigation. A 30-square-mile fire in Orange County, near Los Angeles, that destroyed nine homes was believed to be arson.

In San Bernardino County, a motorcyclist who officials say started a small fire in a rural area of the San Bernardino Mountains has been held on suspicion of arson.

In the city of San Bernardino police shot and killed a man who fled on Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he was trying to start a fire. After a chase the man backed his car into a police patrol car and an officer opened fire.

So far this week’s fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes and burned more than 700 square miles across five counties, from Ventura in the north into Mexico in the south. The state Office of Emergency Services said 28,000 homes were still threatened.

The death toll from the most recent blazes may rise as fires continue to burn and authorities return to areas where homes turned to piles of ash.

The San Diego County medical examiner officially listed six deaths connected to the blazes, but he included five who died during the evacuation who were not directly killed by the fire.

The only confirmed death from the flames was Thomas Varshock, 52, from Tecate, a town on the US side of the Mexican border south-east of San Diego. He ignored orders to evacuate.

Another factor separating these fires from other disasters has been wealth.

Unlike many of the poor neighbourhoods flooded by Hurricane Katrina, the hardest-hit areas in California were filled with upmarket homes, with easy access to wide streets.

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