Six burned bodies found in SoCal fires
SAN DIEGO (AP) — On a day when firefighters methodically beat back several of the wildfires menacing Southern California and thousands of evacuees were allowed home, authorities said Thursday they had found the bodies of six people burned by the flames.
The discoveries in the ashes of two fires that ravaged the San Diego area highlighted the contrasts: While shelters were emptying and threatened homes were spared, the full extent of destruction is still being tallied and several new areas were evacuated ahead of blazes that firefighters hadn’t corralled.
Sheriff’s deputies found the bodies of a couple in their hilltop home in suburban Escondido. That brought to three the number of people confirmed killed by the flames.
Later in a day that included a visit from President Bush, Border Patrol agents found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border.
The San Diego County medical examiner’s office said it couldn’t judge how long ago those victims — tentatively identified as three men and a woman — died. “They could have been out there a while,” said Paul Parker, a medical examiner’s spokesman.
The area was burned by the Harris Fire, the same blaze that killed a 52-year-old man who refused to leave his house in nearby Tecate Sunday.
About 24,000 homes remained threatened Thursday, as several major fires were no more than 30 percent contained in San Diego County and the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in mountains east of Los Angeles.
Still, tens of thousands of people evacuated earlier in the week were allowed home.
Mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for most residential areas of San Diego. Evacuees responded by abandoning emergency shelters. Qualcomm Stadium, which had housed as many as 10,000 people, would be closed as an evacuation center Friday, San Diego’s mayor said.
A mandatory evacuation order was lifted for Ramona, where 10,000 homes had been evacuated, after homeowners pressured officials, reasoning that the danger had passed. The concern had been an insufficient water supply, said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob — fleeing residents had left on their sprinklers and hoses, draining a local reservoir.
During a visit to one of the hardest hit areas, Bush put his arm around Kendra Jeffcoat, one of the many people who had lost their homes.
“We want to let you know that the American people care for people like you who are suffering,” he said as Jeffcoat fought back tears. “We appreciate your spirit, we really do. I think all of us who met you were very impressed by your determination to deal with this tough moment in your life and rebuild your lives.”
As Bush spoke in San Diego County’s suburban Rancho Bernardo area, firefighters aided by calmer winds and cooler temperatures continued to fight fires that have raced over 487,000 acres — about 761 square miles — since they began breaking out late Saturday. Firefighters already have contained several large Los Angeles County blazes.
Meanwhile, some areas remained off limits. And evacuation orders were being issued, including in an area south of San Diego where rural communities on the Mexican border were under threat.
“It’s all slowed down a lot but there will be some runs up the hills so we have to watch that,” said Capt. John Hisaw of the Lakeside Fire Department.
But on many of the fire lines, crews were making major progress, aided by a massive aerial assault that resumed Wednesday after Santa Ana winds, which had gusted as high as 100 mph or more earlier in the week, subsided. Record high temperatures of recent days also began succumbing to cooling sea breezes.
So far, losses from the fires total more than $1 billion in San Diego County alone, where officials said 1,470 homes have been destroyed along with a third of the state’s avocado crop. In all, about 1,800 homes have been lost.
The losses are only half as high as those in Southern California’s 2003 fires, but are certain to rise as more damages are totaled throughout the region.
At their height, this week’s fires forced more than 500,000 people to flee, the largest mass evacuation in California history.
With many now leaving shelters, San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said authorities were moving into recovery mode. Local assistance centers, with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on hand, were being established in three of the county’s most affected communities.
Even with the slackening winds, the county remains a tinderbox: More than 8,500 homes were threatened. Rural owns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where homes burned four years ago. Authorities also evacuated Jamul, an upscale community of about 6,000 in a hilly region about 20 miles east of San Diego.
David and Brandy Hradecky, who defied evacuation orders with their daughters, said a small percentage of residents chose not to evacuate Jamul. David Hradecky said he spent 2 1/2 days using his bulldozer to create firebreaks around seven homes and said his young daughters even used 5-gallon buckets to put out hotspots and quench the thirst of farm animals.
“Where are you going to go? They were evacuating the evacuee places. We know what to do. We took care of all the people’s houses,” said Brandy Hradecky.
In the Lake Arrowhead resort area, where two wildfires had destroyed more than 300 homes, fire officials said 16,000 homes were still threatened Thursday. Both fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters.
The total burn area stretches in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the middle of that arc is the Santiago Fire in Orange County, which has burned nearly 23,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. Only 30 percent contained Thursday, it is the only major fire believed to be the result of arson. It had been 50 percent contained Wednesday, but firefighters lost ground overnight as it moved into the Cleveland National Forest.
Federal agents were sent to help investigate the fire. Authorities said a smaller, more recent fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.
Four men, in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, have been arrested this week after police said witnesses saw them igniting other small fires that were quickly extinguished. None of the four was linked to the large blazes.
At least 40 firefighters and 35 other people have been injured because of the fires. Seven other people died of various causes after being evacuated.
The bodies of John Christopher Bain, 58, and his 55-year-old wife, Victoria Fox, were discovered hours apart, on Wednesday and Thursday, in the rubble of their Escondido home. Neighbors told officials they last saw the couple around midnight Monday when they told them to evacuate.
“They were wonderful human beings — wonderful people who loved their family,” said a relative who asked not to be identified.
The relative said the couple met as students at nearby Poway High School but didn’t marry until decades later, in the 1980s, after dating for seven years.
The bodies discovered Thursday afternoon were found by Border Patrol agents patrolling an area near a major corridor for illegal immigrants who often walk hours, or even days, to cross into the United States from Mexico.
They were burned beyond recognition, said Alberto Lozano, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate in San Diego.
“It’s going to be very difficult to prove who they are unless they had some sort of I.D, which we don’t know,” Lozano said.
Associated Press Writers Allison Hoffman in San Diego, Martha Mendoza in Running Springs, Scott Lindlaw in Julian, Gillian Flaccus in Jamul and Thomas Watkins, Jacob Adelman, Chelsea J. Carter and Jeremiah Marquez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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