Wildfires Wane as Bush Visits California

President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talk to firefighters at Kit Carson Park in Escondido, a command post for San Diego County.
President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talk to firefighters at Kit Carson Park in Escondido, a command post for San Diego County. (Pool Photo By K.c. Alfred Via Associated Press)
By Sonya Geis and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 26, 2007

EL CAJON, Calif., Oct. 25 -- Continued weakening of the seasonal Santa Ana winds allowed firefighters to step up their battle against devastating wildfires Thursday, though thousands of homes remained under threat from advancing flames and the death toll rose with the discovery of six bodies.

"The fires are winding down. We're starting to get control, except for the major fires in San Diego," said Bill Peters, spokesman for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We'll get them out, shifting more and more resources down there. And the weather helps."

Four bodies were found Thursday in a canyon near the Mexican border, and two were found in a burned home in the northern part of San Diego County.

Progress in the exhausting fight came as President Bush began a visit to Southern California to tour fire-ravaged areas. The president arrived as the morning sun struggled to break through thick cloaks of smoke that trailed out of mountain canyons east of San Diego before diffusing into a yellowish pall over coastal areas. He was welcomed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and promptly set off on a helicopter tour.

Bush's helicopter, Marine One, flew over a denuded canyon, hovering there for a time in the smoky haze. It then flew over Interstate 15 before landing on a high school football field.

"It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead," Bush told a crowd of hundreds of firefighters at a command post at Kit Carson Park in Escondido in northern San Diego County.

During a subsequent tour of a San Diego neighborhood, Bush said he would leave it to historians to compare the government's performance in responding to the California fires with that of its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "There's all kinds of time for historians to compare this response or that response," he said, his arm draped over the shoulder of Kendra Jeffcoat, who lost her home in the wildfires.

Bush and Schwarzenegger gave each other credit for what they described as the prompt and effective response of state and federal agencies that had kept the number killed by the fires low, though the inferno has devastated 753 square miles and will end up causing more than $1 billion in damage.

"I think we have learned a lot from the past mistakes and we're much stronger now," said Schwarzenegger, alluding to the 2003 fires that charred 1,171 square miles, killed 24 people and destroyed 3,600 homes.

Some local experts, however, say the state and federal governments had not learn enough and that many of the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission set up after the fires four years ago had not been followed.

Former San Diego fire chief Jeff Bowman noted that the commission recommended that the state add 150 firetrucks, upgrade its firefighting helicopter fleet and improve coordination with the military in order to get Army and Marine helicopters in the air more quickly. None of that happened, Bowman said.

"I think people need to be held accountable for what they've done and what they haven't done," he said.

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