Six bodies found in wake of wildfires

Firefighters battling wildfires menacing southern California discovered the bodies of six people killed by the flames.

Firefighters battling wildfires menacing southern California discovered the bodies of six people killed by the flames.

Border Patrol agents on routine patrol found four bodies in a wooded area near Barrett Junction, just east of San Diego and along the Mexican border, agency spokeswoman Gloria Chavez said.

The area is near a major corridor for illegal immigrants who often walk hours or even days to cross into the US from Mexico.

Authorities said they discovered the bodies yesterday afternoon but did not know how long ago the victims died.

“They could have been out there a while,” said Paul Parker, a spokesman for the San Diego County medical examiner’s office. They were tentatively identified as three men and one woman.

Later two bodies were discovered in the rubble of a burned home in San Diego County. The pair had ignored warnings to evacuate.

Flames have consumed more than 487,000 acres and at least 1,800 homes since the weekend. About 24,000 homes remained threatened, as several major fires were no more than 30% contained in San Diego County and the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in mountains east of Los Angeles.

Despite the deaths, there were hopeful signs as firefighters took advantage of calmer winds and cooler temperatures to launch an aerial assault on several stubborn blazes.

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.

President George W Bush surveyed the damage in San Diego’s hard-hit community of Rancho Bernardo, where he draped his armed around a woman who had lost her home.

“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,” said Bush, who earlier declared seven counties a major disaster area, making residents eligible for federal assistance to help them rebuild.

At least 52 firefighters and about 30 other people have been injured fighting the fires.

In the Los Angeles area, fire crews worked to dampen wildfires, including two that burned 21 homes and were now fully contained. But the focus shifted to flames still raging in Orange and San Diego counties, particularly in rural areas near the Mexico border where more evacuation orders were issued.

San Diego officials said the number of homes destroyed had surpassed 1,400, about 400 more than previously reported. That would bring the number of homes destroyed in the seven affected counties to at least 1,800.

The Santa Ana winds that had fuelled the flames were all but gone, but San Diego County remained a tinderbox.

Crews were battling a 38,000-acre fire in northern San Diego County that was burning on Palomar Mountain.

Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the state fire department, said there was no immediate threat to the mountain’s landmark observatory, which housed the world’s largest telescope when it was completed in 1908.

In the Lake Arrowhead area, fire officials said 16,000 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.

A 26,000-acre blaze in Orange County, near Los Angeles, has been declared arson. Five people in San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties have been arrested on suspicion of arson, but none has been linked to any of the major blazes, authorities said.

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