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.
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."
In nearby Escondido, Susan Healey returned after two days with friends to a house unscathed except for heavy soot in the swimming pool.
"I don't think after something like this you're ever not different," the middle-school teacher said. "I had two days to think about: What are the most important things in my house? And they all fit in my car. I realize now how much junk I have."
Even as the huge fires raged, and 200 residents of southern San Diego County were ordered out of their homes, officials prepared for the next phase of the disaster. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) announced that "one-stop shops" will open Thursday and Friday to help residents replace burned documents, file insurance claims and handle other paperwork.
"As we transition from a state of emergency to a process of recovery, this center will be a hub for people to rebuild their lives," said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, announcing an assistance center in Rancho Bernardo, where entire streets had vanished.
"We are doing everything we can to get everybody back into their homes as quickly and as safely as possible," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender.
It was unclear how many people left their homes to begin with. California's Office of Emergency Services said 351,000 people were officially instructed to evacuate, including 250,000 around San Diego. A spokeswoman said the agency could not account for reports that put the number of evacuees nearly three times that many.
"We just can't confirm that number, and that number was apparently just created by news media maybe counting all the other people getting out of the area," Carrie Reinsimar said. "But they weren't the mandatory evacuees."
Nor was it clear where everyone went. The state counted only 22,200 people in the 51 schools, civic centers and other locations considered official evacuation centers.
That left 320,000 sheltering in hotels, with friends or camping out. Mike Martinez brought his family Tuesday night to a KOA campground in Chula Vista, after fleeing as the flames approach their home in nearby Jamul.
"Get what's important to you," Martinez remembers urging his 15-year-old son, Alex. "The first thing he packed was five guitars," the contractor said. "What do you need five guitars for?"
But to Alex the guitars are the legacy of a grandfather who played them and passed his love of music to the boy.
"They're important to me," Alex said with a shrug.
Ash floating from a gray sky covered the RVs and cars in a parking lot, an example of the soot-choked air enveloping Southern California. Air quality from Los Angeles to the border was rated "unhealthful for everyone." Residents were urged to avoid outdoor exercise and to run their air conditioners -- a problem in San Diego, where the power system was straining. Privately owned San Diego Gas & Electric urged its 3.4 million customers to avoid running dishwashers, washing machines and other appliances not deemed essential. Hospitals and other "medically sensitive customers" were warned that they could lose service abruptly if the Camp Pendleton fire worsened.
"This particular effort is unprecedented," Lt. Gov. John Garamendi said at a news conference. "Never before has California been faced with such a difficult, complex and devastating fire as we face today."
Vick reported from Los Angeles, Geis from Escondido and Rancho Santa Fe. Staff writer Tamara Jones in Chula Vista contributed to this report.