Cool weather is helping firefighters in Southern California, where wildfires have scorched at least 230,000 hectares and killed 16 people. However, fire officials say the danger far from over.
More than 10 major fires are still burning in the state, the worst in mountain communities near San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, and other mountain resorts near San Diego. Tens of thousands of residents remain evacuated from towns like Lake Arrowhead and Julian.
Deanne Berry is a fire department spokeswoman in the mountain resort of Big Bear. "Our town is pretty vacant. Most of the residents have left. If they have not, we'd like to encourage them to. It's now time. I hope that they heed this warning. It is a mandatory evacuation," she said.
The picture is better in Simi Valley, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles. Cooler, moister weather is letting firefighters dig a firebreak to divert the blaze from housing developments.
Tuesday, they kept flames at bay in the nearby suburb of Stevenson Ranch. Kelley Gouette of the Simi Fire Department says that, Wednesday, they hoped to make more progress. "With the break in the weather, we're going to be conducting line construction using bulldozers and hand crews on the east portion of the fire. And hopefully if it all goes well today, then we're going to conduct a firing operation and hopefully be successful with that."
Residents are grateful, said Mick Mueller of the U.S. Forest Service. "It's been an amazing outpouring by people. And all the firefighters are thankful, every time they see that sign, "Thank You Firefighters," it brings a tear to their eye," he said.
President Bush has authorized federal disaster funds for the fire victims. California's governor-elect, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was meeting in Washington Wednesday with members of Congress, senators, and administration officials, urging that help for the state be sent quickly. He said the response is encouraging. "Even though it's very sad, what's going on in California, but at the same time, it is a happy moment also when you come here and you ask for help, and people open up their arms and say, we're there with you. We're going to help California. So that has been the message in all my meetings this morning," he said.
Costs from the California fires will be in the billions of dollars. One state official calls this most devastating natural disaster that the state has experienced. He adds that it is certainly the most costly.