SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Firefighters won the upper hand against most of California’s wildfires on Thursday, though several still burned out of control as President George W. Bush surveyed what he called “terrible devastation” from the five-day disaster.
As hot Santa Ana winds subsided, replaced by cool offshore breezes, and flames died down, most of the 500,000 people who took part in California’s largest mass evacuation were returning home, officials said.
About 2,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged since Sunday, when wildfires began breaking out across the southern half of the state. A pair of burned bodies were found in a house in San Diego County, bringing the death toll to at least eight, including those who died in the evacuation. At least 60 people were injured.
“These fires are among the worst disasters in California history, and the president and I just had a heartbreaking tour of the disaster,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.
Bush, who was roundly criticized for his handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, flew over hard-hit San Diego in a helicopter with 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.
Schwarzenegger has won praise for his hands-on management, but also thanked Bush for his quick response.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, criticized along with Bush for the chaos following Katrina, had 1,000 people on the ground in Southern California.
Though the abating Santa Ana winds had allowed firefighters to go on the offensive, they said that offshore breezes replacing them could fan the flames, being fought by 9,000 weary men and women.
“We are still not out of danger yet because of the wind,” said Es Berliner, a California fire official.
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 nearly 800 square miles in a parched region that suffered its driest summer on record.
“The first two days were very chaotic. The winds were crazy,” said Danny Chandler, at the San Diego County Witch fire. “Now it has died down a lot.”
The Witch fire was one of about 20 fires that erupted since Sunday night, all of which were given names by fire officials.
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.
“This is going to be a reentry day for many of the thousands of San Diegans that are out there,” county emergency services chief Ron Lane said. “We are absolutely thrilled.”
San Diego police said two people who were trying to cross into Mexico after looting homes.
One of the most critical fires was in Orange County, where firefighters trying to control the 23,000-acre (8,094-hectare) Santiago fire lost ground overnight.
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.
Three out of four of Los Angeles County’s fires had been fully contained, including one in the celebrity enclave of Malibu.
A risk firm said insured losses from the fires would likely cost between $900 million and $1.6 billion.
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Matt Spetalnick in San Diego