- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

LOS ANGELES

Smoky skies cleared, and once-whipping winds slowed to a standstill Tuesday, as another wave of those who fled Southern California’s ferocious weekend wildfires prepared to sort through the remains of their homes.

Three fires have destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and apartments and burned 42,000 acres, or 65 square miles, forcing thousands to flee. The causes of all three were under investigation, although a human cause was suspected in a Santa Barbara County blaze.

The state said Tuesday that the cost of fighting the wildfires is worsening the state’s budget crisis. The governor’s finance director, H.D. Palmer, said the state has spent $305 million on emergency firefighting since July 1. Only $69 million had been budgeted.

Lawmakers currently are meeting in a special session to address the state’s fiscal crisis and must act by the end of the month. The state also will seek federal reimbursement.

Many residents of the 484 homes destroyed in the tight-knit Oakridge Mobile Home Park were expected to line up, walk through and see the worst of the devastation for themselves after authorities made sure there were no bodies in the ashes.

More than 500 people made the trip on Monday but were not allowed to sift through the ruins as cadaver-sniffing dogs scoured the area to make sure no one had died in the blaze. After an exhaustive search, no bodies were found.

Residents with intact homes were allowed to quickly pick up clothes, toiletries and other belongings under police escort.

Most evacuation orders were lifted in Southern California by Tuesday, when the clear skies and calm winds helped firefighters make some gains. But bad air remained in some places, and classes were canceled at dozens of schools near fire zones in Orange County.

Warm weather was forecast to remain Tuesday with temperatures reaching the 80s in much of the region, but winds weren’t expected to blow much harder than about 5 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

In Sylmar, wild winds blew a wall of fire through the mobile-home complex Saturday and set them ablaze so quickly that even firefighters had to drop their hoses and run.

Firefighters were able to save about 120 homes, but many were severely damaged in the park that residents had described as idyllic for its mountain scenery, swimming pool, tennis courts and community spirit.

“It’s a disaster,” said Joan Costa, whose home was spared in the blaze.

Los Angeles police officials were still looking for residents of 166 properties who have not yet contacted authorities. Officials listed the numbers of those spaces and urged the residents to confirm they are alive and well.

Elsewhere, the largest of the fires has burned nearly 29,000 acres in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties and has destroyed more than 250 homes and apartment units. Firefighters said they had it 60 percent surrounded. San Bernardino became the fourth county to have a state of emergency declared.

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