Southern California fire update: Santa Ana winds expected to weaken, five dead |

Southern California fire update: Santa Ana winds expected to weaken, five dead

Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press Writer

SAN DIEGO ” On the fourth day of a vicious firestorm, exhausted firefighters and weary residents looked forward today to a break ” an expected slackening of the fierce wind that has fanned the state’s explosive wildland blazes.

Meanwhile, some of the half-million people chased from their homes by the flames were being allowed to their neighborhoods.

Forecasters said the Santa Ana wind whipping across Southern California will begin to weaken late Wednesday afternoon, followed by cooling sea breezes. The 16 wind-fed wildfires have destroyed nearly 1,300 homes and forced the largest evacuation in the state’s history.

The shift could allow for a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during a tour of an evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

“If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide,” he said.

Crews were anticipating an injection of additional firefighters and equipment from other states, mostly throughout the West. Frustration over the firefighting effort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.

Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters’ lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.

“It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire,” he said.

The fires have burned 410,000 acres, or about 640 square miles, causing at least $100 million in damage. Twenty-one firefighters and at least 24 others have been injured. One person was killed by the flames, and the San Diego medical examiner’s officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.

The state’s top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability of firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state’s nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Grijalva said the fires, spread by winds that at times topped 100 mph, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABC News reporter, and praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

“Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain because there’s a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here – we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government – and they can’t fly because of the wind situation.”

Thousands of people packed evacuation centers, where many had an agonizing wait to find out whether their homes had survived. At the Del Mar Fairgrounds in northern San Diego County, which was converted into a shelter, many stared at television sets blaring reports from the fire lines and damaged neighborhoods.

“We’re going crazy trying to get back into our apartment just to see what kind of damage we’ve got,” said Tim Harrington, who arrived at the racetrack with his wife, son and their two pet rats. “Then we’ll pick up the pieces from there.”

“I’ve got two reports: One person told me it’s gone, and one person said it’s still there,” said J.C. Playford, who left his home in San Diego County. “So I have no idea.”

Some knew their homes were destroyed. Mike and Tere Miller of Rancho Bernardo were able to return Tuesday. They had left frantically when they realized flames were approaching, stopping only to drag their dog out the door and awaken a handicapped neighbor. When they came back, they kept looking for their home – and never saw it.

“It was just a smoldering pile of nothing,” Mike Miller told NBC’s “Today.”

His wife said she had packed papers they knew they would need, but that was it. “If you even think that something’s going to happen, you should prepare, and consider all the things that are most meaningful to you. Because once they’re gone, you can never get them back,” she said tearfully.

Evacuation orders continued Wednesday. Residents of the San Diego County communities of Fallbrook and Julian, an area devastated by a 2003 wildfire, were ordered out of their homes.

Officials also were evacuating De Luz, an unincorporated community north of Camp Pendleton that was being threatened by a wildfire burning on the Marine base. The fire also closed Interstate 5 and the Metrolink commuter rail, snagging the morning commute.

Residents of some San Diego County neighborhoods were gradually being allowed to return, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said at a news conference.

So far, the fires have inflicted the worst damage in San Diego County, where five blazes continued to burn. The largest fire had consumed 196,420 acres – about 300 square miles – from Witch Creek to Rancho Santa Fe, destroying 650 homes, businesses and other buildings. Other hard-hit areas included San Bernardino County, where hundreds of homes burned in the mountain resort communities near Lake Arrowhead.

Associated Press writers Chelsea J. Carter, Jeremiah Marquez, Daisy Nguyen, Robert Jablon and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles, Martha Mendoza in Lake Arrowhead, Jacob Adelman in Santa Clarita, Elliot Spagat and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego, Pauline Arrillaga in Del Mar and Ryan Pearson in Lake Forest contributed to this report.

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