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California Fires Claims 20 Lives, Destroys Thousands of Homes - 2003-10-30

2,600 houses have been destroyed, and the death toll from the blazes has reached 20. Rain and fog are helping firefighters, who are battling wildfires in Southern California. Nine large fires and a handful of smaller ones continue to wreak havoc in the state, including a large blaze in the mountains near San Bernardino. Flames racing through the towering pine and fir trees flared 90 meters high.

Andy Acosta, a recovery worker who is clearing the rubble from Cedar Glen, a mountain town where some 300 houses burned on Wednesday night lives in the mountain community, and says, luckily, none of his neighbors lost their lives.

"The evacuation, some people took it pretty hard, saying, 'oh, we shouldn't have evacuated,'" he said. "[But] They're alive in a motel, or at a friend's or at grandma's house somewhere. And they're alive."

The death toll is heavy in San Diego County, where 14 people have died in the so-called Cedar Fire, which has scorched more than 100,000 hectares. The first firefighter to die in the fires was killed Wednesday, near the historic mountain town of Julian.

Three colleagues were injured, one seriously, but doctors say he appears to be out of danger.

Near Los Angeles, the Simi Valley fire briefly caused the closure of a major north-south highway, Interstate 5. Firefighters stopped the advancing flames with the help of helicopters dropping fire retardant. Firefighter Roy Belluz says pilots performed well in a dangerous situation.

"I'll tell you, they were pretty awesome," he said. "They took some real risks, and stopped that fire. Very, very impressive."

California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger returned home Thursday from Washington, where he met with members of Congress and the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Schwarzenegger spoke with reporters in Washington, appearing with California Congressman David Dreier.

"We've had really good meetings," said Mr. Schwarzenegger. "I think everyone is interested in helping our state. And I think that Congressman David Dreier can verify that, that we really have gotten all the help. I cannot go into specifics yet, but there will be in the near future."

State officials estimate that the cost of damage from the fires will top $2 billion.