Crews gain on fire as winds let up

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGame Center: Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 10 a.m. Despite Wednesday’s progress, none of the major blazes in San Diego County was more than 40 percent contained, and those fires threatened more than 8,500 houses. The top priority was a fire in San Bernardino County that threatened 6,000 homes and continued to rage out of control. Overall, 28,000 homes remained threatened across the region, the state Office of Emergency Services said Wednesday night. As the fire threat diminished during the day, authorities began letting tens of thousands of people go home. “The vast majority of the city is now open for people to return,” San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders told a news conference late Wednesday afternoon. Some who did saw hulking, blackened piles of concrete and twisted metal where their homes once stood. “I’m just sick to my stomach,” said Patty Thompson, 50, as she surveyed the remnants of a home that once offered a view of the valley and the mountains in the distance. The improving weather did allow for a greater aerial assault on the most destructive blazes. Within hours of returning to the sky, helicopters and air tankers dropped more than 30 loads of water on two fires that have burned hundreds of homes and about 12,000 acres in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Lake Arrowhead. “They’re taking it down considerably,” said Dennis Bouslaugh of the U.S. Forest Service. Already, about 1,500 homes have been destroyed since the fires started late Saturday, triggering the largest evacuation in California history. The flames have burned about 717 square miles, across five counties, from Ventura in the north all the way into Mexico. Property damage has reached at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone. President Bush, who signed a major disaster declaration for California, was scheduled to visit the region Thursday. Federal agents joined the search for evidence in the brush-covered hills where an arsonist may have ignited one of the wildfires devastating Southern California. Elsewhere, a man suspected of starting a small fire was arrested and another man was shot to death by police after he fled officers who approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire. The number of victims may increase as authorities return to neighborhoods where homes turned to piles of ash, but displaced homeowners and authorities were relieved that early reports were so low. The San Diego County medical examiner officially listed six deaths connected to the blazes, but he included five who died during the evacuation who were not directly killed by the fire. In 2003, all but a handful of the 22 dead succumbed to flames. Terry Dooley, who was ordered out of his home with his wife and three sons Monday, said authorities learned important lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 California fires that wiped out 3,640 homes and blackened 750,000 acres over two weeks. Unlike many of the poor neighborhoods flooded by Hurricane Katrina, California’s hardest-hit areas were filled with upscale homes, with easy access to wide streets. “They learned how to get things done more quickly,” Dooley said as he waited at a roadblock to return home to San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo area. In 2003, only 50,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County. This week, more than 500,000 people were ordered to evacuate in San Diego County alone. In addition to the reverse-911 system, authorities also shut down schools, halted mail delivery and urged people to stay home if they were not in danger. On Wednesday, about two dozen people gathered at a police barricade in Rancho Bernardo, which was one of the hardest-hit areas, hoping to retrieve medications and belongings – or simply to see whether their homes were intact. What awaited was an apocalyptic scene: House after house, 29 on one street alone, reduced to piles of blackened concrete with only chimneys left standing, charred hulks of metal that once were cars sitting in driveways. At one point, police officers lifted a barricade only to turn residents away several hundred yards down the road at a second barricade. Some of the homeowners cursed at the officers. “You let us in just to send us back out,” one angry man yelled from his car. Six of San Diego County’s 42 evacuation centers were full, but there was plenty of space at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL’s Chargers. People rested on cots that lined covered walkways circling the bleachers and quietly watched television. There were no bathroom lines. Some displaced homeowners complained that the evacuations went too far. Ron Morris, 68, saw smoke but no flames Sunday night when he was ordered to leave a motor home park in Ramona, northeast of San Diego. He drove his home to Qualcomm Stadium’s parking lot. “It’s good that everyone got out, but they did it too early in my opinion,” he said. Authorities made no apologies. “All but the most unlucky people can see the fire coming,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday in an interview. “There’s no reason you should have loss of life, certainly for civilians.” The only confirmed death from the flames was Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate, a town this side of the U.S.-Mexico border southeast of San Diego, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office said. Authorities had told him to evacuate, but he didn’t leave and authorities left to take care of other evacuations, the medical examiner’s office said. Firefighters returned to save two people trapped at his home Sunday but were unable to rescue Varshock, said Rick Hutchinson, a deputy incident commander for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Four firefighters were overcome by flames. One was in critical condition Wednesday; another was in serious condition. Another 25 to 30 homeowners ignored orders Tuesday to leave unincorporated Deerhorn Valley southeast of San Diego, forcing firefighters to return to save them, Hutchinson said. Homeowners who stayed behind knew firefighters were overwhelmed and figured their lives were safe, said Al Guerin, a San Diego County assistant sheriff. “They say, ‘Yeah, OK,’” he said, “and then they call you later and say ‘Help! Help! Help!’”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! SAN DIEGO — A merciful easing of the winds fueling Southern California’s sprawling wildfires finally offered a chance to fight back against some blazes Wednesday, and weary residents could take solace in an overriding sign of hope: Just one person has died from the flames. That contrasts to 22 dead from a fire of similar magnitude four years ago, and while the final toll has yet to be tallied from this week’s fires, officials were crediting an automated, reverse 911 calling system that prompted the orderly evacuation of more than half a million people. That was 10 times the number evacuated four years ago. “On the call, it was like, ‘This area, go! This area, go!’” said Steve Levstik, who got his call 15 minutes before flames swept through his upscale, densely populated Rancho Bernardo neighborhood. “In 2003 there was less guidance. It was like, ‘Just pay attention to the news and if it looks bad, leave.’” On Wednesday, winds dropped to 21 mph to 36 mph – still strong, but nothing like the gusts of up to 100 mph that raked fire zones earlier in the week. That helped firefighters fully contain the three major blazes in Los Angeles County by nightfall.last_img read more