Amid progress, fire peril lingers

Some Calif. blazes nearly contained, but others erupt

October 27, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

LOS ANGELES -- Small fires began, larger fires inched closer to containment, and a handful of the more than 20 blazes that have burned across Southern California for six days remained serious threats yesterday.

In Orange County, a blaze that officials call the Santiago fire continued to burn fiercely.

Its eastern edge was out of control and threatened communications equipment and 750 houses.

By late yesterday afternoon, the blaze raged toward a 5-mile-long canyon where firefighters sprayed fire-resistant gel on houses.

The Orange County Fire Authority increased its reward offer to $285,000 from $100,000 for tips leading to the arrest for what authorities say was an arsonist or a group of arsonists responsible for the devastating fire.

Authorities asked for help finding a white Ford F-150 seen in the area where the fire started.

In San Bernardino County, the Slide fire had burned 13,378 acres by yesterday and was 15 percent contained by late afternoon, with 10,000 houses still threatened and many mandatory evacuations continuing.

Firefighters in San Diego County, where some of the worst damage occurred, continued to battle the flames.

The most ferocious in terms of damage, the Witch fire, which has consumed 1,061 houses, continued to burn strongly, with winds remaining erratic yesterday afternoon.

The Harris fire, near the Mexican border, was also far from containment.

There were also signs of progress in San Diego County.

A fire that erupted this week at the Marines' Camp Pendleton, burning 20,000 acres, was nearly contained.

Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego closed operations for evacuees, and the San Diego Chargers said they would play there tomorrow against the Houston Texans as scheduled.

By yesterday afternoon, the many fires that began Sunday with a blaze in Malibu and quickly spread across the region had killed seven people, including four illegal immigrants who authorities think might have been trying to cross the border; burned 494,355 acres; destroyed at least 1,800 homes; and injured scores of people, including 60 firefighters.

At one point, more than half a million residents fled from their houses.

Yesterday, Californians continued to make their way back to charred neighborhoods, salvaging what they could and coming to terms in hundreds of cases with vast swaths of devastation.

Others returned to find that their homes had been spared while neighbors' homes had burned to the ground.

Robert Sanders, 56, of Rancho Bernardo was among those with no homes to return to. Sanders, a photographer, returned to find his house reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble. The fire-resistant box he kept his transparencies in was intact, but its contents had melted.

"I've lost my history," Sanders said. "All the work I've done for the past 30 years, it's all destroyed."

About 12,600 San Diego Gas and Electric customers remained without power yesterday, and 675 were without natural gas, said utility spokeswoman April Bolduc.

Pollution-control authorities warned that smoke and ash are making the air dangerous and urged people with heart or respiratory diseases to remain indoors.

One of the five people who have been arrested on arson charges since the wildfires broke out pleaded not guilty yesterday. Police said witnesses told them that they had seen Catalino Pineda, 41, starting a fire Wednesday on a San Fernando Valley hillside. He is not linked to any of the major blazes.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

DEVELOPMENTS

California wildfire statistics:

Acreage burned: 494,355 (about 772 square miles).

Homes destroyed: at least 1,800.

Deaths: Three confirmed and seven fire-related. Authorities are investigating whether four charred bodies found east of San Diego on Thursday were victims of the Harris fire.

Injuries: 60 firefighters and about 30 civilians.

People taking shelter in 41 evacuation centers as of 8 a.m. yesterday: 4,512, according to the state Office of Emergency Services.

[Associated Press]

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