San Diego, USA — Dying winds gave California firefighterstheir first big break on Wednesday after four days battling wildfires, but SanDiego faced more calamity as blazes there burned out of control and kept morethan half a million evacuees from returning home.
The skies over much of the region were filled with thick, acrid smoke,forcing residents to stay indoors or wear masks.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said 18 fires burned on Wednesday andthreatened 25,000 structures. Nearly 1,500 homes had already been lost. SanDiego bore the brunt of the damage and officials there put losses in excess of$1 billion.
More than 500,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in the biggestmass evacuation in California’s modern history.
Six deaths have been reported, while 40 people suffered injuries, many ofthem firefighters.
Two big fires merged in San Diego County, scorching more than 200,000 acres,almost half of the total burned area in California.
“We have several tremendous fires still going on,” San Diego MayorJerry Sanders said.
Los Angeles County canceled its wind warnings four days after hot Santa Anawinds blew in from the desert and sparked the first fire in the seasidecelebrity enclave of Malibu, where life had begun returning to normal byWednesday.
Mountain blazes east of Los Angeles were the worst, but firefighters saidcalmer wind conditions would make a big difference. Top wind speeds fell tobelow 50 mph (80 kph) after gale force gusts hit 80 mph (130 kph).
Schwarzenegger said 8,900 firefighters remained on the fire lines.
BUSH DECLARES DISASTER
“A lot of them have worked 36 hours and 48 hours without stopping,”Schwarzenegger said.
President George W. Bush on Wednesday declared a “major disaster”in seven Southern California counties, triggering extra federal help. He willtravel to the region on Thursday to get a close-up look at the devastation.
San Diego, state and federal authorities set up food, shelter and medicalservices for the displaced, amid sharp memories of the debacle followingHurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
At San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, where the National Football League’s SanDiego Chargers play, 14,000 evacuees spent a second night.
But evacuees said they were pleased with the official response to their needs,the clean conditions, abundant food and water and even yoga, acupuncture andmassage.
Even animals were being accommodated, with evacuated horses put up at thecounty fairgrounds.
Some residents were allowed to go back to their homes, but officials keptmany waiting while they dealt with hot spots.
“I have a place to go home to. I know because my answering machine isstill working, which means it’s not melted,” said Helle Powell, 61, aresident of Rancho Bernardo, one of the worst-hit areas.
San Diego County officials said that even when the fires were out they wouldface a major cleanup and huge costs.
“Based on initial estimates, just the homes damaged will be over $1billion,” Ron Lane, San Diego County emergency services director, told anews conference.
San Diego told residents to conserve water and electricity, as the firessliced power supply to 60 percent of normal and threatened to cut off the areafrom the state’s power grid.
Sanders implored residents to cut power use, telling them: “You’ve gotto conserve today. You have no choice.”
A nuclear power plant in San Onofre was not in immediate danger, officialssaid, despite fires burning at the nearby Marine base of Camp Pendleton, one ofthe largest military bases in the United States.