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Winds Ease, Allowing Californians to Tackle Damaging Fires

The strong winds fueling a string of powerful wildfires in Southern California began to taper off Wednesday, but officials in San Diego said the damage there has already likely topped the $1 billion mark. A San Diego County official provides an update.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Once again, we begin our fires coverage with a report from NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET Los Angeles.

  • FIREFIGHTER:

    Right there. That's a pretty graphic representation of what these firefighters are facing.

  • JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent:

    Wind-whipped and exhausted, firefighters watched and waited for the Santa Ana winds to die down today, a lull that could bring a respite from the blazes that have engulfed Southern California.

  • FIREFIGHTER:

    The fires are coming right close to the homes. Here you can kind of see it burning through some of that fuel right there.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    At least 18 active fires continue to burn, from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, on this, the fourth day of treacherous fires. Statewide, some 10,000 firefighters are battling the flames from the ground and the air.

    By this afternoon, the fires had scorched some 426,000 acres. The blazes have been responsible for six deaths. At least 45 people have been injured, half that number firefighters.

  • MARVIN RAMIREZ, Cal Conservation Corps:

    We've been up for about 48 hours, all starting with the shift that we started when we drove down here, but not getting put on the line.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    In San Diego County, by far the hardest hit area, at least 1,200 homes have been destroyed. Officials expect that number to rise. Damage estimates here now top $1 billion.

    The fires are still spreading, and thick blankets of acrid, black smoke hang heavy. This morning, Interstate 5, the major artery between Los Angeles and San Diego, was shut down, a result of a fire on the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine base that got out of control and burned some 3,000 acres.

  • KEN MATSUMOTO, Oceanside Fire Department:

    We have a fire that started in Camp Pendleton's area that progressed westward because of the winds. And it caught the center divider on fire. And we're just trying to control it right now and wait for additional resources to get here to extinguish the bulk of the fire.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Hundreds of thousands of residents have fled their homes, the largest mass movement of people in California history.

  • VIVIAN HEIDE, Fire Victim:

    We've lived in our house since 1973, and I can't imagine that it's not going to be there. But then, the longer it goes, the more you think, "You know, we'll pitch a tent."

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Thousands of people have moved into evacuation centers, but many are being allowed to return home. County officials have issued a plea to residents to conserve resources.

    While much of San Diego is dealing with a still unfolding crisis, some communities in this country are gradually tallying the damage and taking the first infant steps towards recovery. One of the hardest hit places is Rancho Bernardo, a bedroom community with a population of about 75,000. Officials say about 500 homes were completely destroyed here; another 65 have suffered damage.

    As is often the case when wind-whipped fires sweep through suburbs, there seems to be no pattern to the destruction. Wrecked homes are side by side with houses that don't have singe marks on them.

    The owners of most of these destroyed homes haven't laid eyes on them. That's because Rancho Bernardo, like communities throughout San Diego, is under a mandatory evacuation order. As of this morning, it was enforced by National Guard personnel, as well as by local police.

  • SGT. JOE DELIAGA, San Diego Police Department:

    We don't want to allow residents in here where we may have to force them back out. We're fortunate Monday we got everybody out without loss of life. We don't want to take a chance of allowing people in and forcing them back out.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    At a road block, anxious residents and business owners waited for the "all clear." Mike Roberts was here with his wife and two daughters.

  • MIKE ROBERTS, Fire Victim:

    Just kind of hop-scotched over there. Mine's standing. My neighbor's standing. But the one across the street is gone, so there's no logic whatsoever.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Among the first allowed back into Rancho Bernardo were crews who cleared brush and debris. Inspectors from utility companies surveyed the damage.

    TED KNOWD, San Diego Gas and Electric: It's pretty wiped out. Obviously we've got poles down here. The fire moved through here really quickly. Obviously, you've got several homes burned down. But just trying to get an assessment of how much damage to the electrical system we have and what it's going to take to get it restored.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    At the local recreation center, federal, state and local officials gathered to plan the opening of an emergency center that will provide assistance to residents when they return. Helen Phillips is the director of the recreation center. What is going on here?

  • HELEN PHILLIPS, Recreation Center Director:

    We are now changed from a recreation center into a command center. And we will be serving FEMA, Red Cross. We will be setting up here to serve all of the folks that have lost their homes.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    One island of relative normalcy in this disaster area is Casa de Las Campanas, an upscale retirement community.

  • JILL SORENSON, Casa de Las Campanas Retirement Community:

    We're continuing to provide three meals a day. It's not our normal menu, of course, but we have been able to get medical and food delivered, medical supplies and food. And we are providing three meals a day and taking care of everybody's needs at this point.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    While the retirement home evacuated people in need of skilled care and those with dementia, other residents have stayed here, despite the fact that power is off in their apartments.

    To the north of this area, firefighters struggle to contain a blaze in Lake Arrowhead, east of Los Angeles. It has destroyed hundreds of homes in this mountain resort.

    But elsewhere in Southern California, there has been progress. The blazes in Los Angeles County are contained. But successes aside, there have been some criticisms of the firefighting response. Some local officials have said the state was unprepared.

    Ruben Grijalva, the state's top firefighter, rejects those critiques.

    RUBEN GRIJALVA, Director, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: The governor directed me and gave me every asset, every resource that we needed to combat fires. The key here is, when you have 60-mile-an-hour winds and gusts of to 80- to 85-mile-an-hour winds, no amount of resources are going to help that.

    You know, we risk the lives of our firefighters when — I don't care how many of them you have — when you have those kinds of conditions. The key to reducing the threat of wildfire in California is land use planning, prevention, and getting ahead of the curve.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    President Bush has now signed a major disaster declaration for California, which will provide more federal aid, including long-term recovery funding. The president plans to head to Southern California tomorrow to assess the damage firsthand.

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