USA — On the fourth day of a vicious firestorm, exhausted firefighters andweary residents looked forward Wednesday to a break an expected slackening ofthe fierce wind that has fanned the state’s explosive wildland blazes.
Firefighters watch a back fire on a hillside in Jamul, Ca.,Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. Deadly, wind-whipped wildfires have triggered thelargest evacuation in state history, prompting some 500,000 people to flee aheadof flames that have destroyed more than 1,600 homes and continued Wednesday tothreaten tens of thousands more. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Forecasters said the Santa Ana wind whipping across Southern California willbegin to weaken late Wednesday afternoon, followed by cooling sea breezes. The16 wind-fed wildfires have destroyed nearly 1,300 homes and forced ahalf-million people to flee.
The shift could allow for a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beatback the most destructive blazes, said Homeland Security Secretary MichaelChertoff during a tour of an evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
“If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide,” he said.
Crews were anticipating an injection of additional firefighters and equipmentfrom other states, mostly throughout the West. Frustration over the firefightingeffort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had beendone to protect homes.
Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters’ liveswere threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quickdeployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.
“It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would havebeen able to control this fire,” he said.
The fires have burned 410,000 acres, or about 640 square miles, causing atleast $100 million in damage. Twenty-one firefighters and at least 24 othershave been injured. One person was killed by the flames, and the San Diegomedical examiner’s officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.
The state’s top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability offirefighters and equipment. Eight of the state’s nine water-dumping helicopterswere in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department ofForestry and Fire Protection.
Grijalva said the fires, spread by winds that at times topped 100 mph, wouldhave overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABCNews reporter, and praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipmentacross a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.
“Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complainbecause there’s a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “The fact is that wecould have all the planes in the world here we have 90 aircraft here and sixthat we got especially from the federal government and they can’t fly because ofthe wind situation.”
Thousands of people packed evacuation centers, where many had an agonizingwait to find out whether their homes had survived. At the Del Mar Fairgrounds innorthern San Diego County, which was converted into a shelter, many stared attelevision sets blaring reports from the fire lines and damaged neighborhoods.
“We’re going crazy trying to get back into our apartment just to seewhat kind of damage we’ve got,” said Tim Harrington, who arrived at theracetrack with his wife, son and their two pet rats. “Then we’ll pick upthe pieces from there.”
“I’ve got two reports: One person told me it’s gone, and one person saidit’s still there,” said J.C. Playford, who left his home in San DiegoCounty. “So I have no idea.”
Some knew their homes were destroyed. Mike and Tere Miller of Rancho Bernardowere able to return Tuesday. They had left frantically when they realized flameswere approaching, stopping only to drag their dog out the door and awaken ahandicapped neighbor. When they came back, they kept looking for their home andnever saw it.
“It was just a smoldering pile of nothing,” Mike Miller told NBC’s”Today.”
His wife said she had packed papers they knew they would need, but that wasit. “If you even think that something’s going to happen, you should prepare,and consider all the things that are most meaningful to you. Because oncethey’re gone, you can never get them back,” she said tearfully.
Evacuation orders continued Wednesday. Residents of the San Diego Countycommunities of Fallbrook and Julian, an area devastated by a 2003 wildfire, wereordered out of their homes.
Officials also were evacuating De Luz, an unincorporated community north ofCamp Pendleton that was being threatened by a wildfire burning on the Marinebase. The fire also closed Interstate 5 and the Metrolink commuter rail,snagging the morning commute.
So far, the fires have inflicted the worst damage in San Diego County, wherefive blazes continued to burn. The largest fire had consumed 196,420 acres about300 square miles from Witch Creek to Rancho Santa Fe, destroying 650 homes,businesses and other buildings. Other hard-hit areas included San BernardinoCounty, where hundreds of homes burned in the mountain resort communities nearLake Arrowhead.