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California Leaders Announce Aid Programs for Wildfire Victims - 2003-11-01

More than 2,800 Californians who have lost their homes to wildfires are looking to the future. The fires have claimed 20 lives and have devastated whole neighborhoods. California Governor Gray Davis and Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke Friday at center set up to help disaster victims.

During the recent recall campaign against governor Davis, the two men were bitter rivals. But now, they say, they are fellow Californians. They came to a center in Claremont, east of Los Angeles, to announce that state and federal aid is available for fire victims.

Governor Davis said his heart goes out to them. "Their dreams went up in smoke. The least we can do is put a check in their hand and help put them back on their feet," he said.

For Jim Hunter, the loss came in a matter of minutes. That was all it took for his home in Palmer Canyon to go up in flames Saturday. The house was one of 66 lost near Claremont. "It hasn't been burned in 100 years, and I put a lot of my own work into it," he said.

President Bush is expected to visit the fire-stricken regions of California Tuesday.

Governor-elect Schawarzenegger had praise for firefighters. He says he has met with many. "And it was a very special moment for me because those firefighters are true heroes," he stressed. "The kind of work that they do, the selfless kind of work by risking their own lives to save other people's lives, to save their businesses, to save their home, it's extraordinary. As I told them yesterday, I only play heroes in movies, but they are the true heroes."

On the fire lines near San Bernadino, the danger is not yet over, said assistant fire chief Jim Morley of Big Bear Lake. He warned that a blaze near this mountain community, now stalled by cool wet weather, could flare up if desert winds, called Santa Anas, start to blow again. He said fires are now burning close to the town.

"A large finger of fire down below Running Springs and another large finger of fire on the east side of Lake Arrowhead, and the concern is in the next couple of days that the weather is going to change and we're going to get Santa Ana winds again, and the fire down here is like a "sleeping giant" just ready to wake up," explained fire chief Morley.

A blanket of snow is predicted Saturday for high altitude mountain communities and that will help firefighters. But they warn that California weather this time of year is changeable.