October 27, 2007 / 12:25 AM / 10 years ago

Cooler weather aids California firefighters

<p>A helicopter makes a water drop as firefighters continue to battle the Santiago fire in Orange County, California October 27, 2007. Wildfires continue to burn.Phil McCarten</p>

SILVERADO CANYON, California (Reuters) - Cool weather and calm skies helped thousands of firefighters beat back Southern California wildfires on Saturday, although flare-ups in some places meant the battle was not yet over.

In many areas, residents ventured back through charred landscapes to see if their homes were still standing or were among the 2,300 buildings around San Diego and Los Angeles that were destroyed over the past week.

Lori and Mike Hutter, both 51, returned to a San Diego neighborhood where nearly a dozen homes had been destroyed to sift through ashes for family keepsakes.

"I want my house to be rebuilt as close, if not identical, to what it was because that's the only house my kids have ever known," Lori Hutter told Reuters by telephone.

"We don't know anything else, we wouldn't think to live anywhere else," Hutter said, adding that offers of food, housing and money had poured in from friends and co-workers.

Cool, cloudy weather offered relief to weary firefighters and put to rest -- at least temporarily -- fears that fresh winds could further stoke blazes that have already killed 12 people.

"It helped yesterday and it's helping again today. Looking ahead to tomorrow, they are supposed to get some scattered rain over the area. The weather's really helping out quite a bit," said Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

Despite the optimism, firefighters were still battling nine blazes threatening hundreds of homes.

"This is still a very fluid situation that's going to go on for a number of days," Chip Prather, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, said on CNN.

<p>Dave Ruiz (R)and his nephew Colin Ruiz sort through the remains of their family's burned out home in Rancho Santa Fe, California October 27, 2007. Risk Management Solutions, which predicts and assesses insured damages, said in a statement that the wildfires which have devastated Southern California would likely cost insurers between $900 million and $1.6 billion.John Gress</p>

The largest fire, in San Diego County, which has burned more than 300 square miles, was at least 60 percent contained, up from 45 percent.

A smaller blaze in Silverado Canyon in Orange County that had turned ferocious overnight was creeping along ridges but so far sparing homes clustered below, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.

That fire is thought to have been started by an arsonist, and police and FBI agents were examining burned areas for clues about the blaze's origins.

Slideshow (8 Images)

"If I were one of those people who started the fires I would not sleep soundly," said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "We're right behind you -- turn yourself in."

In Fallbrook, about 40 miles north of San Diego, work crews surveyed damage from fires that had gutted many homes and blackened large swathes of land, according to a Reuters photographer.

Nearly two dozen fires have burned about 800 square miles

over the past week, with about two-thirds of that contained as of late Friday, according to government data.

The losses are expected to top $1 billion in hard-hit San Diego County alone.

More than 320,000 people were still evacuated, though that had fallen from a peak of more than 500,000, according to the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Schwarzenegger said the state would give cash grants of up to $10,000 to some of those who lost their homes or belongings or needed medical treatment.

Reporting by John Gress in San Diego County, Phil McCarten in Orange County, and Scott Hillis in San Francisco

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