California residents await winds of fate
By GILLIAN FLACCUS
Associated Press Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) — After three days of a vicious firestorm, exhausted firefighters and weary residents looked forward to a break today — an expected slackening of the gale force winds that have ignited the state’s largest complex of wildland blazes.
Forecasters said the Santa Ana breezes that have fanned flames across Southern California will begin to weaken late this afternoon, followed by cooling sea breezes. The series of 16 wildfires has destroyed nearly 1,300 homes. “By Thursday, we’re expecting it to be pretty much over,” said Noel Isla, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s San Diego office.
The welcome forecast of lower temperatures and lighter winds will be accompanied by an injection of additional firefighters and equipment from other states. Frustration over the firefighting effort erupted Tuesday, when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.
Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters’ lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine. “It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire,” he said.
The fires have injured 21 firefighters and at least 24 others. One person was killed by the flames, and the San Diego medical examiner’s officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.
The state’s top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability of firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state’s nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Grijalva said the fires, spread by winds that at times topped 100 mph, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABC News reporter.
“Anybody that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain because there’s a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here — we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government — and they can’t fly because of the wind situation.”
He praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border. The wind-driven fires had burned 410,000 acres, or about 640 square miles, causing at least $100 million in damage.
The wildfires have led to the largest evacuation in state history, with more than 500,000 people forced to flee their homes. Thousands packed evacuation centers.
San Diego school officials announced on the district’s Web site that all classes and programs would be canceled for the rest of the week “due to the continued extreme fire conditions and unhealthy air.”
Late Tuesday night, officials issued a new round of mandatory evacuations in the San Diego County communities of Fallbrook and Julian, an area devastated by a 2003 wildfire. Water and power in the town were cut off.
Dozens of additional fire engines and hundreds more firefighters, as well as at least six more aircraft, were expected to arrive today from other states, mostly throughout the West.
“Crews, engines, helicopters — they’re coming in from all over the country,” said Bob Shidelar, a fire operations director from Northern California who was helping fight a fire in the mountains of San Bernardino County. He said firefighters there were badly understaffed.
Winds could reach 50 mph in mountain passes early today and blow erratically, presenting an especially daunting challenge to firefighters battling out-of-control blazes in San Diego County and the mountain resorts east of Los Angeles.
“There’s all those fuels, just sitting there waiting,” said Leonard Villareal, a San Diego fire district spokesman. “The winds kick it up and kick it up quickly, and it moves really quickly because there’s all that fuel to eat.”
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, touring an evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, said he hoped the slackening winds expected late today would allow a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes.
“If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide,” he said.
Associated Press writers Chelsea J. Carter, Jeremiah Marquez, Daisy Nguyen, Robert Jablon and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles, Martha Mendoza in Lake Arrowhead, Jacob Adelman in Santa Clarita, Elliot Spagat and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego, Pauline Arrillaga in Del Mar and Ryan Pearson in Lake Forest contributed to this report.
Published in The Messenger 10.24.07