LOS ANGELES – As fierce Santa Ana winds finally began to subside, firefighters reached a turning point Wednesday in their four-day battle against Southern California’s wildfires. Although several large fires remained largely untamed and several communities threatened, the siege’s worst days appeared over.
The toll by the end of the day: 695 square miles burned and 1,609 homes destroyed, with damage estimated by the state Department of Insurance at more than $1 billion.
The official death toll is one; eight other deaths have been linked in some way to the fires. Sixty-four people have been injured.
“We are making good progress,” said Tim Fike, a section chief with the Nevada County Fire Department who was overseeing deployments of firefighters and equipment at the Grass Valley Fire near Lake Arrowhead, one of 13 blazes still burning in a seven-county area. “Our goal is to button it up as soon as possible.”
The firefighters got a big assist from the weather, as dust-dry, gale-force winds gave way to lighter breezes and some coastal humidity.
President Bush declared a major disaster in the region, allowing fire victims to apply for federal grants for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses. Bush plans to visit Southern California for roughly three hours today.
The shortage of firefighting resources remained a constant theme, even as more aircraft flew in to join the effort. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sounded annoyed when he was asked by an ABC News reporter about complaints Tuesday from Orange County’s fire chief, Chip Prather, who said he could have squelched the destructive Santiago fire with more firefighting aircraft.
“Anyone who is complaining about the planes just wants to complain, because it is just a bunch of nonsense,” Schwarzenegger said. “The fact is, we have all the planes in the world here – we have 90 aircraft here.”
The fire in Orange County, which destroyed six homes, was a flashpoint for anger not only because of Prather’s complaints but because authorities believe that it was intentionally set. Investigators from the FBI and county agencies focused Wednesday on the intersection where the fire started, Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads.
“It’s definitely arson, and it’s been deemed a crime scene,” said Jim Amormino , a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
To the east, in San Bernardino County, a man who allegedly set a brush fire in Hesperia was arrested on suspicion of arson, and police reported shooting and killing another arson suspect after chasing him out of scrub behind California State University, San Bernardino.
A fire in Temecula also is suspected of being deliberately set. The causes of other fires remain under investigation, although at least three are believed to have been started when high winds knocked down power lines.
The confrontation that ended in the shooting death started about 6 p.m. Tuesday when university police spotted a man in a rural area of flood channels and scrub near the campus. Officers tried to detain the man, but he got into his car and fled, ultimately driving up a dirt road into the foothills, authorities said.
There were other discordant notes amid the general mood of beleaguered optimism Wednesday. Six undocumented Mexican immigrants were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego after a report that they were stealing food and water meant for evacuees, agency spokesman Damon Foreman said.
A volunteer at Qualcomm, Michael Turley, 28, said he had spotted about a half-dozen people stealing supplies from the stadium Tuesday and loading them into vehicles with Baja California license plates.
“It was a total slap in the face,” he said. “Here we had been volunteering and busting our butts, and people were taking all this.”