Conditions improving in California for firefighters' battle

Cloudy skies and occasional raindrops brought a welcome improvement in conditions in southern California, where firefighters were battling wildfires.

Cloudy skies and occasional raindrops brought a welcome improvement in conditions in southern California, where firefighters were battling wildfires.

By yesterday, tropical moisture flowing from the south had replaced the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that roared in a week earlier and spread fires over more than half a million acres, destroying more than 2,300 structures, including 1,700 homes.

The number of deaths directly attributed to the fires officially rose to seven.

Officials confirmed that the flames killed four suspected illegal immigrants whose charred bodies were found near the US-Mexico border on Thursday, said Jose Alvarez, a public information officer for San Diego County emergency services. Identification of the victims was continuing.

Although more than a dozen blazes were surrounded, containment of nine other blazes ranged from 97% to just 25%. More than 21,000 structures were considered threatened, and more than 15,000 firefighters were on the lines, the state Office of Emergency Services said.

“It’s very overcast right now, no wind. Low humidity, about 30 percent. They’re talking about rain,” said Audrey Hagen, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in San Diego.

Active fires burned in the Lake Arrowhead resort region of the towering San Bernardino Mountains 100 miles east of Los Angeles, and in rugged wilderness above isolated canyon communities of Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles. A big blaze 60 miles northeast of San Diego stopped its advance towards the mountain town of Julian.

A wildfire was about a mile from thousands of homes in Arrowbear, Green Valley Lake and Running Springs.

Rain began falling in the mountain range during the late afternoon.

“The fire is moving away from the residences, but with the wind anything can happen,” said US Forest Service spokeswoman Lisa Jones.

Forecasters said there would be a weak flow of wind out of the north and northwest today and then a return to calm and drizzle.

Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger said at a news conference that he would work to improve problems in the state’s deployment of firefighting aircraft when major wildfires erupt.

It was reported on Thursday that nearly two dozen military helicopters stayed grounded for days after several wildfires broke out because state personnel who must be on board were not immediately available.

“There are things that we could improve on and I think this is what we are going to do because a disaster like this … in the end is a good vehicle, a motivator for everyone to come together,” Schwarzenegger said.

In southern California fire areas, about 4,400 people remained in 28 shelter sites, but others waited out the fires in makeshift encampments.

In Highland, at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, about 20 people were in their sixth day of living in a Wal-Mart car park, getting daily visits from sheriff’s officials who reported their 17 homes were still intact.

“What are the chances of that? The hundreds of people staying at the shelters, I still don’t think they have the comfort of knowing that kind of information,” said Robert Newbourgh, 44.

Light rain also fell on the Rancho Bernardo section of San Diego, where more than 360 homes were lost. National Guard troops patrolled and postal trucks delivered mail to homes that were still standing.

In San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo community, Bruce Heinemann, 48, spoke with an insurance adjuster as friends sifted through his ruined home, looking for his wife’s wedding ring, photos and other mementoes.

The Heinemanns had about 10 minutes to evacuate on Monday morning, just enough time to escape with some clothes and three of their four cars.

Meanwhile, his daughter was at a newly rented home making lists of what they lost, and his wife was visiting department stores to get prices for the insurers.

“The kind of mode you’re in is, what do you do today? What do you do tomorrow? Just make a list and get it done,” he said.

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