California fires ease, but thousands remain at risk

Thousands of homes were still under threat from wildfires in California today despite a break in the strong winds fanning the flames.

Thousands of homes were still under threat from wildfires in California today despite a break in the strong winds fanning the flames.

The 100 mph Santa Ana blasts that have whipped across the south of the state since the weekend were expected to all but disappear today.

The record high temperatures of recent days began to subside as cooling sea breezes set it, and two fires that burned 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County were fully contained.

But even with the slackening winds, the countryside remained a tinderbox. In San Diego County more than 8,500 homes were still threatened.

President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, was due to arrive today to take an aerial tour of the affected areas, accompanied by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"It's a sad situation out there in Southern California," Mr Bush said outside the White House before leaving.

"I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts. They just need to know a lot of folks care about them."

Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003.

To the north-east, in the San Bernardino County mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said 6,000 homes remained in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.

Both fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters that dumped more than 30 loads of water.

Losses total at least $1bn (€699m) in San Diego County alone, and include a third of the state's avocado crop. The losses are half as high as those in Southern California's 2003 fires, but are certain to rise.

The more hopeful news on the fire lines came a day after residents in some hard-hit San Diego County neighbourhoods were allowed back to their streets, many lined with the wreckage of melted cars.

In upmarket Rancho Bernardo, house after house had been reduced to a smouldering heap. Cheryl Monticello, 38 and eight months pregnant, knew what she would find when she came back Wednesday because a city official warned her the house was lost. But she had to see it for herself.

"You really need to see it to know for sure," Monticello said.

Only the white brick chimney and her daughter's backyard slide had survived the inferno that bore down on her neighbourhood Monday morning.

The total affected area of nearly 460,000 acres stretches in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the US-Mexico border.

In the middle of that arc, the Santiago Fire in Orange County had burned nearly 20,000 acres and destroyed nine homes.

Despite the widespread destruction, the fires have directly claimed just one life, 52-year-old Thomas Varshock of Tecate. The San Diego medical examiner's office listed five other deaths as connected to the blazes because all who died were evacuees.

The number of victims could rise as authorities return to neighbourhoods where homes burned. In 2003, 22 people lost their lives in a series of fires that lasted nearly two weeks.

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