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Firefighters attempt to control the fire's advance, in Jamul, San Diego County, Oct. 24, 2007.
Firefighters attempt to control the fire's advance, in Jamul, San Diego County, Oct. 24, 2007.
Robyn Beck - Getty Images

Calif. Firefighters Get Their Chance

Brother and sister Robert and Kate Zarrella look over the wreckage of their home in Poway, Calif., in San Diego County. The county alone has an estimated $1 billion in damage.
Brother and sister Robert and Kate Zarrella look over the wreckage of their home in Poway, Calif., in San Diego County. The county alone has an estimated $1 billion in damage. (By Lenny Ignelzi -- Associated Press)

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By Karl Vick and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 25, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 24 -- In a disaster driven more than anything by wind, the breezes dying across Southern California on Wednesday translated into rising hope.

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About 20 brush fires continued to roar, part of a conflagration that has blackened an area 10 times the size of the District of Columbia, destroyed 1,600 structures, displaced hundreds of thousands and sullied air for millions more across the region.

But gradually decreasing winds allowed the 8,000 exhausted firefighters to stand and fight the flames rather than dash from one hot spot to another. Aircraft arriving from across the country found free rein to bombard the fires from above. Blazes in Malibu, where the first fires leapt down canyons toward the sea on Sunday, were declared under control, and the Pacific Coast Highway reopened. So did many stores as a hint of normalcy crept into view.

Farther south in San Diego County, the hardest hit of the seven affected counties, a trickle of residents ventured from evacuation centers to check on homes that, in most cases, still stood. But the way was far from clear: A fast-moving blaze in the vast Camp Pendleton Marine base threatened the last remaining power lines that provide the county with almost all of its electricity.

The other major link, which ran from Arizona, was severed by another fire earlier in the week, forcing the power company to import electricity from Mexico to keep up with demand. The Pendleton blaze also leaped Interstate 5, shutting down a stretch of the state's main north-south artery for several hours while firefighters bent to yet another task.

"I wish we could control the wind," President Bush said while announcing that uninsured victims of the fires would be eligible for grants. The president was scheduled to tour affected areas Thursday.

Officials said they suspected that some of the fires had been deliberately set. Police in San Bernardino County said they shot and killed a suspected arsonist Tuesday night and arrested another arson suspect a few hours later. County officials also beefed up patrols to prevent looting after several looters were arrested in nearby San Diego County.

So far, only one death can be directly linked to the flames. But Ron Lane, the director of San Diego County emergency services, provided the first estimate of damage: $1 billion "or more."

The total reflects merely the lowest estimate of the real estate reduced to ashes in the county, where the median home price last year was $472,000 and a new detached home last year averaged $836,000.

The average is skewed by neighborhoods such as Rancho Santa Fe, a rural retreat in the county's north, where gated mansions come with horse paddocks and pools.

Officials feared that the Witch fire -- the largest of 15 in the county -- would torch its fragrant boulevards of eucalyptus and march to the sea. And when TV news reported that evacuees could return Wednesday, residents made the road home a traffic jam of Mercedes-Benzes and Lexuses. They were stopped by an armed National Guardsman in a Hummer.

"I heard from neighbors my place was okay," said Shel Greenhill, who pulled up in a BMW station wagon with a large poodle in the back. "But I'm worried about my koi pond."


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