October 25, 2007 / 12:06 PM / 12 years ago

Charred bodies found in path of California fires

(Updates with details of bodies found, edits)

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Border patrol agents discovered four charred bodies in rugged mountains near the Mexican border on Thursday, bringing the probable death toll from California’s wildfires to 12, even as firefighters gained the upper hand in their five-day battle.

Agents found the badly burned remains, thought to be three males and a female, at the bottom of a rocky ravine in the mountains east of San Diego, about 3 miles (5 km) from the Mexican border.

Together with two other burned bodies found earlier Thursday in a house in San Diego county, the discovery doubled the probable death toll from the fires. At least 60 people have been injured.

As crews used a break in the weather to bring most of the fires under control, President George W. Bush surveyed the devastated areas and met with a few of of the estimated 500,000 people who fled their homes in California’s largest mass evacuation.

Bush, who was roundly criticized for his handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, flew over hard-hit San Diego in a helicopter with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and visited charred neighborhoods.

"It really is important for me to come out here and see first hand the situation, and there’s no question a lot of people are suffering, and there’s no question there’s been terrible losses," Bush said.

The four bodies found near the Mexican border were likely illegal immigrants who were overrun by flames as they walked through the rugged terrain. The remote area is often used by coyotes — guides who smuggle people into the United States for profit.

They appeared to have died in the Harris fire, U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Matthew Johnson said.

"It seems fire related. The Harris fire at the border was out there," Johnson said.


About 2,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged since Sunday, when wildfires began breaking out across the southern half of the state.

"These fires are among the worst disasters in California history, and the president and I just had a heartbreaking tour of the disaster," Schwarzenegger said.

The wildfires broke out during the weekend after the winds began to blow in from the desert at more than 80 mph (130 kph). They have blackened more than 800 square miles (2,072 sq km) in a parched region that suffered its driest summer on record.

San Diego County has suffered some $1 billion in losses, and three of the largest fires were still burning there, mostly in the eastern, less populated part of the county.

But most evacuees were allowed to return home and Qualcomm Stadium, which had provided shelter for some 10,000 people at the height of the disaster, was closed.

Steve Conner, 62, whose home was one of 30 reduced to ruins on his block in suburban San Diego, described the moment he confronted the loss of his house and neighborhood as a "total breakdown."

"Emotionally, it was just beyond belief," the Vietnam War infantry veteran said, his voice shaking. "It’s just totally wiped out. All the trees are black. ... it just reminded me of Vietnam. It just reminded me of a war zone."

One of the last major battles was in Orange County, where firefighters were trying to stop the 25,000-acre Santiago fire.

The blaze, which has destroyed 14 homes and was burning into the Cleveland National Forest, was being investigated by local authorities as well as the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as an arson. A $150,000 reward had been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

A risk firm said insured losses from the fires would likely cost between $900 million and $1.6 billion. (Additional Steve Gorman in Los Angeles)

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