Wildfires in California contained, officials say

Panel to study lessons about response to blazes

damage is surveyed

November 04, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES - Officials declared the California wildfires tamed yesterday, 10 days after the blazes began their destructive rampage across a wide swath of Southern California.

"Finally, we're able to say that as of 6 p.m. tonight or 8 a.m. tomorrow, all the fires will be 100 percent contained," Andrea Tuttle, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said yesterday.

State and federal officials were still surveying the damage from the state's worst wildfires, which killed 20 people, leveled 3,500 homes and blackened an area of 743,621 acres, nearly the size of Rhode Island. The estimate of the cost of property damage and firefighting costs stands at $2 billion, but officials said the number is certain to rise as the full price of the disaster is assessed. The number does not take into account lost business or other economic costs in areas affected by the fire.

"Will this derail the state and Southern California economies?" said Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "No. It will be a disruption, but the budding recovery will not be stopped."

Cold and rainy weather over the weekend finished a job that 15,000 firefighters could not last week. Although a few hot spots could be seen from the air, rain and snow tamped down almost all of the remaining flames yesterday. Thousands of local firefighters from across California returned home, leaving the bulk of the containment and rehabilitation job in the hands of the state forestry agency.

As state forestry officials turned their attention to preventing soil erosion and other ecological damage from the coming rainy season, the post-mortems on the fire were beginning.

Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the creation of a panel to study the lessons from the deadly fires. The group will include federal, state, local and tribal officials and will look at, among other things, tearing down jurisdictional barriers that slowed the initial response to the fires, strengthening building and planning codes in fire zones, and making military fire-fighting personnel and equipment available more quickly.

Aircraft and firefighters from a number of military facilities in the region were not used to combat the blazes because training of the military crews did not meet state standards, and their aircraft were not integrated into the multiagency firefighting command.

"We are looking to better incorporate federal military resources" in civilian firefighting efforts, Tuttle said. "That is what I hope arises from the ashes of this fire."

The worst of the blazes, the 280,000-acre Cedar fire in San Diego County, was declared 99 percent contained yesterday morning. All roads were reopened, and residents were permitted to return to their homes - or the remains of their homes.

But thousands of residents of communities in the San Bernardino mountains remained in shelters or in the homes of friends or relatives yesterday, forbidden by authorities to return home because of residual dangers.

The mountain towns of Twin Peaks, Blue Jay, Rim Forest, Sky Forest, Lake Arrowhead, Cedar Glen, Running Springs, Arrowbear and Green Valley were off-limits to residents because power had not been restored and many roads were blocked by downed power lines and trees.

State officials also began planning programs to replant the devastated canyons and hillsides to prevent flooding and watershed damage in the coming rainy season.

"Our intent is [to] have erosion control and flood control in place before first large damaging rains," said Bill Shultz, a senior forester with the state forestry department. "The public needs to be aware there are going to be mudslides and landslides after these fires."

President Bush is scheduled to visit San Diego today. He will tour the destruction by helicopter and then address firefighters at a regional command post.

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