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Wildfires Continue Burning in Southern California - 2003-10-30

Wildfires continue to burn in Southern California. The first firefighter to die in the blazes was killed near the mining town of Julian, outside San Diego. Three other firefighters were injured. The blazes so far have claimed 18 lives and destroyed 1,800 houses.

Tens of thousands of residents remain evacuated from mountain communities near San Diego and from resorts in the San Bernardino mountains, east of Los Angeles.

Fire captain Art Arzaga says the mountain fire at Running Springs was the most erratic he has witnessed. "We saw fire conditions that we've never seen before, flame lengths probably about 200 feet tall [60 meters] hit us all at once. We went from daylight to instant night and dark, and everything in between," he said.

Another blaze near Simi Valley was helped by cooler weather. It flared up again Wednesday on its southern flank to threaten the neighborhood of Stevenson Ranch, in northern Los Angeles County.

One firefighter watched it scorch neighborhood vegetation, emitting plumes of smoke that made his job more difficult. "Dark ominous clouds, dark ominous smoke coming up, very, very deep dark black smoke, a good indication of the sort of oils that are secreted by a lot of the indigenous vegetation that we have in these areas," he said.

Winds blowing in from the ocean are driving the flames eastward toward the town of Hesperia, where this firefighter was stationed.

"This wind is going to blow this fire up and bump the edge of this community on the southeast side, and we're going to do everything possible to keep it from gobbling up houses and hurting people," he said.

Outgoing governor Gray Davis has added a fifth California county to the four already considered disaster areas. The designation will make fire victims in Riverside County eligible for grants and low-interest loans.

Mr. Davis toured the region and noted that neighboring states have provided crews, fire engines and helicopters. He says more help is welcome.

"If you're within the sound of my voice, whether you're the federal government or a neighbor, if you can spare more helicopters, more firefighters, more fire engines, we can use it because this state has never seen fires of this severity and duration. And we want them put out as soon as is humanly possible," he said.

More than 13,000 firefighter are battling the wildfires. Aside from the danger, they say that fatigue is their biggest problem.