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.
State officials insisted that they had enough equipment to battle the blazes but were hampered, not by bureaucratic lethargy, but by the strong Santa Ana winds that made it too dangerous to fly.
"Yes, we have enough resources," Peters said. "We also have the safety of the operators to keep in mind. When you have winds 25 or 30 knots, you can't fly in those conditions."
Across the region, 10,693 people fought fires, using 1,293 fire engines. As the fires in some areas -- notably Los Angeles County -- are put down, crews are dispatched to San Diego and San Bernardino, where large fires still rage.
"You see what I mean," Peters said. "The resources are there."
The five-day fight, however, tested the stamina of many of the firefighters.
At a base camp in the eastern San Diego County suburb of El Cajon, crews from across California, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and Tijuana, Mexico, rolled in exhausted, and some stocked up on Gatorade, lip balm and energy bars for another turn at the front lines of the 81,000-acre Harris fire.
Fire crews from San Diego County swapped T-shirts and hats with the crew from Mexico -- "Tijuana Bomberos," the hats read -- as souvenirs.
"We got our quarter-million-dollar trucks here, and they're hanging off their $5,000 rigs, and they're here helping us," Greg Groves, a firefighter from Carlsbad, said with a laugh. "Usually it's the other way around."
The base camp sprawls across a dirt square of Gillespie Field, an airport with room for helicopters to land and fire engines to refuel. Tents and trailers provide places for sleeping, showering and eating, plus a few extras such as the chiropractor's tent, staffed by a volunteer who spent the early part of his week evacuated. His home is safe, he said.
"The majority of my patients have been evacuated anyway," Cameron Sutter said after he finished an adjustment on a San Diego firefighter.
At a mess tent Thursday morning, three firefighters from the San Diego County town of Encinitas ate eggs and sausage after their first night's sleep since Sunday.
"In the first 48, I got about one hour of sleep," Gary Goss said. "We do a watch deal -- one guy stays up on the engine to make sure nothing breaks out. But you're sleeping in the cabs and don't get any sleep in there anyway."
So how do they keep going?
"M&Ms," Goss said, laughing. "For me, anyway."
As firefighters battled the blazes, police stepped up their investigation into the possibility that some of the fires in the Los Angeles area were intentionally set, offering rewards for information that leads to the arrest of any arson suspects.
In Los Angeles, police arrested a man after witnesses reported seeing him light a fire on a hillside in the San Fernando Valley on Wednesday and then walk away. Police identified the man as Catalino Pineda, 41, a native of Guatemala who is on probation for making false emergency reports.
In Orange County, Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that investigators have pinpointed arson as the cause of a blaze known as the Santiago fire. As of Thursday, the fire had destroyed 22 homes and other buildings and injured four firefighters, California fire officials said.
Prather said the state government, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have each pledged $50,000 in reward money.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department, meanwhile, reported the arrest of two people, one of them a juvenile, on charges of starting a brush fire in Vista, a town north of San Diego, on Tuesday. The fire they allegedly started was quickly put out.
Sheriff's deputies also arrested two people near the border town of Tecate for allegedly looting a fire-damaged home. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents helped track the pair as they headed toward Mexico, and a large bag full of looted property was recovered, the sheriff's department said.
Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu in Escondido and Karl Vick in Riverside contributed to this report.