- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Ash fell on the beach like snow and drivers turned on their headlights in the smoky daytime streets yesterday as wildfires skipped through the hills of Southern California and threatened 30,000 more homes.

Californias deadliest fires in more than a decade have destroyed more than 1,100 homes, killed at least 15 persons and consumed more than 480,000 acres stretching from the Mexican border to the suburbs northeast of Los Angeles.

“This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it,” Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, said yesterday.

The death toll jumped from 13 to 15 after the bodies of two persons were found on a road near San Diego.

Several people suffered burns and smoke inhalation, including eight hospitalized at the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center. Two had burns over more than 55 percent of their bodies, spokeswoman Eileen Callahan said.

Managers of Californias power grid estimated that 70,000 to 85,000 Southern California customers were without electricity because fires had damaged transmission lines.

The dry, hot Santa Ana winds that have fanned the flames began to ease yesterday, raising hopes that overwhelmed firefighters could make progress with the help of reinforcements on their way from other Western states. But the danger was still high.

President Bush designated the fire-stricken region a major disaster area, opening the door for grants, loans and other aid to residents and businesses in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.

“This is a devastating fire and its a dangerous fire. And were prepared to help in any way we can,” Mr. Bush said at the White House.

Gov. Gray Davis moved to activate the National Guard and summon help from neighboring states.

Later, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger had a fire briefing in Ventura County and praised work by firefighters.

He thanked Mr. Bush for declaring an emergency swiftly and said he would go to Washington today to meet federal officials and “make sure that the federal money will come through.”

“I want to thank them for their hard work. The firefighters are the true heroes. Theyre risking their lives in order to save peoples lives,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said.

Many of those who died in the wildfires ignored evacuation orders and were caught by flames because they waited until the last minute to flee, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said.

“When you are asked to leave, do it immediately,” he said. “Do not wait.”

California Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Thomas Foley said that in a “worst-case scenario,” a blaze now straddling the Ventura-Los Angeles County line could spread all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Nine persons were killed by the so-called Cedar Fire, the largest blaze at 150,000 acres. The fire was ignited Saturday near the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter set off a signal fire, authorities said. The hunter faces charges.

A major fire burning closer to Los Angeles is believed to have been started by arsonists.

“Those who start these fires are no better than domestic terrorists and should be dealt with as such,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

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