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Crews Labor to Fully Rein in Damaging California Wildfires

Wildfires that have forced thousands to evacuate continued to burn across parts of Southern California Thursday and the number of deaths blamed on the blazes rose to 10. Experts discuss what makes the fires difficult to contain and how the government's response has fared so far.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Day five of the fires disaster in California, we begin our coverage with NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET Los Angeles, with this report from San Diego.

  • JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent:

    The winds calmed in Southern California today, allowing firefighters to make major progress. In San Diego County, the flames moved eastward away from urban areas, and many of the estimated half a million evacuated residents were let back into their neighborhoods.

  • RON LANE, San Diego County Emergency Services Director:

    Our major focus now is repopulating the western part of our county.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Shelters are emptying, but about 1,000 evacuees remained at Qualcomm Stadium, down from a high of several thousand.

  • CHIEF KEVIN CRAWFORD, Carlsbad Fire Department:

    We still have fire conditions out there that cannot be taken lightly, and so our efforts are still being put forth to control raging, out-of-control, large-scale fires.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Those large-scale fires have moved to more rural areas of the county, this one in Jamul, near the Mexican border. None of the fires are more than 40 percent to 50 percent contained.

  • FIREFIGHTER:

    Our biggest concern, safety concern is the winds shifting patterns, but it's getting better.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    By this afternoon, at least 15 fires continued to burn across more than 750 square miles, from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border. There was also word of more deaths connected to the fires. At least 10 have died and more than 65 have been injured, about 40 of them firefighters.

    President Bush arrived in smoky Southern California this morning to view the damage. He toured Rancho Bernardo, a fire-ravaged suburb north of San Diego with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The community is home to about 75,000 people; more than 250 homes were destroyed here.

    Along the way, Mr. Bush stopped to comfort Jay and Kendra Jeffcoat, whose home was destroyed. Mr. Bush also met with firefighters and toured a one-stop assistance center. He later spoke to reporters.

    GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: It really is important for me to come out here and see firsthand the situation. And there's no question a lot of people are suffering, and there's no question there's been terrible losses.

    I also am out here to make sure these firefighters behind me and the first responders know how much I appreciate and how much the country appreciates their courage and bravery. We're not going to forget you in Washington, D.C.

    That we want the people to know that 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.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The president has declared seven Southern California counties major disaster areas opening the way for increased federal aid.

  • POLICE OFFICER:

    When we get to a barricade, I'll go in front of you and get you through the barricade, OK?

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    In Rancho Bernardo, residents began returning yesterday evening, but under strict guidelines. Police Sergeant Bill Davis briefed a team of officers assigned to escort residents to their homes for short visits.

  • POLICE OFFICER:

    Stay with the people. They've got 10 minutes. Take them out to the nearest public exit, you know, a place where the public is allowed, come back, and pick up the next one.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Some people got back to undamaged residences to retrieve possessions and pets. For others, coming home was more dramatic.

  • GORDON WOOD, Fire Victim:

    We left without shoes on our feet. There was embers falling on our heads when we tried to get into the car.