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Progress Reported in Fight Against Fires

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 26 -- While residents streamed home from evacuation centers by the thousands in much of Southern California on Friday, firefighters concentrated on the nine blazes still burning the region, including an Orange County arson fire creeping toward a canyon filled with houses.

"This has been an extraordinary week, of course, for people of California," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) said at a news conference. "The people of California have experienced some of the most devastating and difficult fires in the history of California.

"And it's not over yet."

But in many places it definitely felt as if things were winding down. So few evacuees were left in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium that Mayor Jerry Sanders informed the National Football League that the 70,000-seat venue would be available for the Chargers game against the Houston Texans on Sunday. About 10,000 people were sheltered there at midweek, pushed from their homes by the firestorm that forced the Chargers to Arizona for practice.

The moist, cool ocean breezes that assisted firefighters also cleared the air in downtown San Diego, which no longer smelled of smoke. Businesses remained closed in the north of the county, where 2,800 firefighters worked the Witch fire that had destroyed more than 1,000 homes and 120,000 acres. Officials reported it 45 percent contained.

In neighborhoods evacuated and, in some cases, burned, neighbors gathered in the streets trading news of who fared how. Signs reading "Thank You Firefighters" hung in the windows of many businesses, and residents stopped by firehouses to express their gratitude in person.

In hard-hit Rancho Bernardo, some firefighters returned to see which houses had survived the inferno they battled in the predawn hours Monday.

Krista Garrett dabbed at tears as her four small children thanked the crew for saving their corner house. It stood unscathed, even though the house next door was reduced to ash.

"Make sure you tell your husband I'm sorry I yelled at him," Capt. Jeff Mitchell said. The Garretts had just pulled out in their green minivan that morning, flames surrounding the house, when Jim Garrett ran back in to rescue their two cats.

"Get your family out! We'll save your house!" he remembers Mitchell shouting over the roar of wind and fire.

Now Garrett strode across his scorched lawn, hand extended to Mitchell. "You did it," he said. "When we drove out, next door was a wall of flames, our oleander bush was burning, our fence was burning. We were sure our house was toast. Thank you so much."

Along the border with Mexico, the Harris fire was 20 percent contained and moving toward the emptied town of Julian. Border patrol officials said the four bodies found in a canyon near Tecate were thought to be Mexicans overtaken by flames while crossing the border illegally.

The most acute situation, however, was in Orange County, between San Diego and Los Angeles. There a fire set by an arsonist was racing toward houses in Silverado Canyon.

As residents of about 750 threatened houses watched from a safe distance, fire crews scrambled to rip out vegetation in a line between the Cleveland National Forest and their houses in the hope that the firebreak would check its progress.

"Dig up all the brush and any shrubs to get it down to dirt so fire has nothing to burn, so it breaks it up," said Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority.

At the same time, four tanker airplanes and 13 helicopters took turns bombarding the flames with water and fire retardant -- air assets Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather had complained were lacking in the crucial first hours of the fire.

"Our resources are getting better," Round said. "We have about 1,600 firefighters on the line, 216 engines and trucks, 13 helicopters, 4 air tankers, 24 hand crews, 11 dozers and 12 water 'tenders,' " or water trucks.

The search continued for the arsonist authorities said was responsible for the blaze, which spread faster than usual for a brush fire. Agencies and private firms offered rewards of more than $250,000 for information leading to an arrest, and the tips were pouring in. The blaze has destroyed 14 dwellings.

Schwarzenegger announced a series of breaks for residents affected by the fire: suspending by executive order the five-day waiting period for unemployment benefits, and erasing replacement fees for driver's licenses and other documents destroyed by flames. He also announced the U.S. Labor Department had approved his request for $50 million to fund 3,000 temporary jobs for rebuilding and clean-up.

"Southern California's dynamic economy has certainly suffered a major body blow," Schwarzenegger said in the state capital, Sacramento, after spending most of the week in Southern California. "We have to get businesses up and running as quickly as possible."

Staff writers Tamara Jones in Rancho Bernardo and Sonya Geis in Rancho Santa Fe contributed to this report.

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