US President George Bush dismissed comparisons between the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and the southern California wildfires during a tour to the devastated region.
Bush’s brief visit yesterday afforded him an aerial vantage and a ground inspection of the affected area.
Since late Saturday, at least 15 fires have destroyed 1,500 homes in southern California and burned more than 482,000 acres (195,063 hectares) 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.
Losses in San Diego county alone total at least a billion dollars.
“We’ve got a big problem out here,” Bush said near the end of his tour. “We want the people to know there’s a better day ahead – that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life’s going to be better.
“And to the extent that the federal government can help you, we want to do so.”
In an eerie echo of what he once told Katrina victims, he said: “We’re not going to forget you in Washington, DC.”
The president, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, was accompanied by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Also yesterday, authorities announced the discovery of six more bodies.
Mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for most residential areas of San Diego and shelters emptied rapidly.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said an evacuation centre at Qualcomm Stadium, which had housed as many as 10,000 people, would be closed at noon today.
So far three people have been confirmed killed by the fires and another four charred bodies of migrants were being investigated. Seven other people died of various other causes after being evacuated, bringing the fire-related death toll to 14.
Four charred bodies were found yesterday in an apparent migrant camp in a wooded area near Barrett Junction, just east of San Diego and along the Mexican border, said Paul Parker, a spokesman for the San Diego County medical examiner’s office.
Bush took a helicopter tour of the wildfire damage and then visited the hard hit community of Rancho Bernardo, where homes have been burned to rubble.
At one point, he sought to offer comfort to one couple who stood near what remained of their home – a single spiral staircase.
The destruction rekindled memories of the devastation in the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the White House has been eager to deflect potential criticism about the government’s handling of the fires.
“There’s all kinds of time for historians to compare this response to that response,” Bush said. “You better ask the governor how we’re doing.”
Schwarzenegger, standing next to Bush on a cul de sac, said the president reached out to him earlier this week before he even had a chance to make the call himself.
“I call this quick action – quicker than I expected, I can tell you that,” the governor said.
Later, in the hard-hit city of Escondido, Schwarzenegger was more effusive.
Bush returned the praise for his fellow Republican. “It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead,” he said.
It was not clear whether this was a subtle swipe at the Democratic governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, with whom the White House has traded blame for the Katrina crisis.
Blanco, though, resented Bush’s remark.
“I was the only game in town, leading for nearly a week without the president’s help,” she said after learning of the exchange. “Of all the lessons learned from Katrina now being put into place in California, I would hope the one he would remember is that politics has no place in any disaster.”
Before leaving Washington, Bush said he aimed to bring assurances of federal help, comfort for those who have lost lives, homes and possessions, and thanks to overworked firefighters.
Fran Townsend, Bush’s White House-based homeland security adviser, said the disaster response this time is unfolding “exactly the way it should be” and is “better and faster” than the administration’s performance after Katrina.
“This is not the end of federal assistance. It’s just the beginning,” she said.
The grim discovery of six more bodies punctuated what appeared to be days of fighting a seemingly losing battle against the flames.
But firefighters, aided by the calming Santa Ana winds and dropping temperatures, looked yesterday to gain control of some of the most severe fires.
Firefighters had lost ground overnight on one Orange County blaze.
After days of not knowing whether they had homes to which they could return, some of the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated were being allowed back into their neighbourhoods, and shelters were emptying.
More than 500,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County alone, part of the largest mass evacuation in California history.
At least 40 firefighters and 35 other people have been injured because of the fires. In addition, eight Indian reservations have been damaged, officials said.
The hot, dry Santa Ana winds that have whipped the blazes into a destructive, indiscriminate fury since the weekend were expected to all but disappear.
“That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.
Federal authorities are investigating at least one of the fires that is believed to have been set by an arsonist.
Two men, in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, have been arrested this week after police alleged they started small fires. Another man was also shot dead by police Tuesday night while fleeing as officers approached to see if he was trying to set a fire in San Bernardino.
The man, whose name was not released, had led police on a chase, then backed his car into a police cruiser, authorities said.