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Firefighters Make Headway on California Blazes

October 26, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: Firefighters wearily moved into a second weekend of work, but with renewed hope. Cooler weather helped ground and air assaults against the massive fires, which are mostly away from residential areas.

With the discovery of four charred bodies on this hillside near the Mexican border, the death toll related to the California fires neared 20 by this afternoon, and officials expect to find more victims.

Nearly half-a-million acres have been scorched by the fires; that’s twice the size of New York City. At least 1,800 homes have been destroyed, 80 percent of them in San Diego County. Five fires continue to burn in the San Diego area, one near Camp Pendleton Marine Base, two others fires farther east, and two more to the south.

More than 10,000 firefighters are still on the front lines. The main firefighting efforts have moved from the suburbs to the backcountry, where crews are still struggling to contain the blazes.

Using muscles and chainsaws, fire crews from around the west are trying to prevent remote fires from getting to structures in the more sparsely populated neighborhoods.

Perhaps counterintuitively, these firefighters set fires. Bobby Willis heads a 22-member hotshot crew from Northern California. There are dozens of these federally funded teams which specialize in fighting wildfires here from around the country to combat these blazes.

Why do you want to consume this brush? What’s the point?

CHIEF BOBBY WILLIS, Hotshot Crew: To create a fire break, because the black line is the best fire break, because once it’s already burned, it’s not going to come up through here again.

Dangers of fighting fires

JEFFREY KAYE: Willis and his crew worked the edge of the Harris Fire, southeast of San Diego, not far from the Mexican border. That fire has consumed nearly 85,000 acres and destroyed 97 homes. By this morning, the fire was only 20 percent contained. These so-called mop-up operations are as carefully coordinated as the more sensational assaults on the dramatic wildfires.

Twice a day, firefighter commanders assemble their teams for briefings. This morning, just after daylight, crew leaders assigned to the Harris Fire began their meeting with a sober reminder about the dangers: a remembrance for the five firefighters killed one year ago today combating wildfires not far from here in nearby Riverside County.

FIREFIGHTER: Stay engaged. Remember what's important to you. And please take a moment today to get in touch with your families.

JEFFREY KAYE: As commanders went through the day's assignments, the chief concern was the highly combustible brush dried by the drought and the humidity.

FIREFIGHTER: So even though you're not seeing high-intensity fire behavior, just be aware that, at any second, you know, if you get the right conditions, things can change very rapidly.

Evacuation orders lifting

JEFFREY KAYE: From sensitive archeological sites to communications frequencies, weather forecasts, and public relations, the team leaders covered a catalogue of concerns that they'll communicate to their crews.

In most places now, there is little drama to the fire suppression efforts. In the Lake Hodges community, 17 structures have been destroyed. To the untrained eye, it appears that the firefight here is over, but we caught a ride with a crew from San Francisco who explained that, even if the flames have been extinguished, the danger has not.

RON JOHANSEN, San Francisco Fire Department: Before you know it, with erratic winds, no humidity, high temperatures, you have a new fire started all over again.

JEFFREY KAYE: As evacuation orders are lifted, shelters continue to empty. The largest, Qualcomm Stadium, which held more than 10,000 evacuees earlier in the week, closed at noon today. Players for the San Diego Chargers football team, forced by the fires from their own homes, as well as from their practice fields, will now be able to play there on Sunday afternoon.

JAY REED: We don't know when we're going to be able to get back home. We're hoping that it's going to be before the weekend. It's just a wait-and-see, day by day.

Evidence of arson

JEFFREY KAYE: As thousands more residents returned to see what was left of their homes, more details emerged about how some fires were sparked.

CHIEF CHIP PRATHER, Orange County Fire Authority: There was evidence found at the scene that resulted in my investigators concluding quickly that this was an intentionally set fire.

JEFFREY KAYE: Investigators suspect many blazes were set by downed power lines, but at least three of the fires -- including the 26,000-acre one that ravaged Orange County -- are considered suspicious.

HERB BROWN, Federal Bureau of Investigation: The FBI will bring to bear all its national resources with ATF, the Orange County Fire Authority, as well as the Orange County Sheriff's Department, to make sure that we track, apprehend and put this person or persons behind bars where they belong.

Complaints of firefighting delays

JEFFREY KAYE: Five people in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties have been arrested on suspicion of arson, but none has been linked to any of the major fires. That's little consolation for those who lost everything.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: If it was natural, then that would be different, but the fact that somebody did this on purpose, it hurts.

JEFFREY KAYE: There were also complaints from some local officials, including two Southern California members of Congress, that some water-dropping helicopters and cargo planes were delayed in participating in the firefighting efforts because of government rules and bureaucracy.

But state officials, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have insisted any delay was due to the strong Santa Ana winds.

JIM LEHRER: Our correspondent, Jeffrey Kaye, has been on the scene covering the fire story all week. He and forestry and wildfire expert, Tom Bonnicksen, will answer questions on an Insider Forum on our Web site. You can ask about the fires, the forest conditions that helped fuel the flames, and the response effort by firefighters and others. To participate, just go to our Web site at