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California Firefighters Focus on Two Worst Blazes

Oct. 30 (Bloomberg) -- California firefighters, battling the state's worst blazes in over a decade, focused their efforts on the two largest and most dangerous fires, east of Los Angeles and San Diego, in an effort to save homes and businesses.

The weeklong siege of fires, once numbering 13, have killed 20 people and destroyed more than 2,500 homes while burning more than 1,100 square miles (2,900 kilometers), about the size of Rhode Island.

Cooler temperatures and moist air helped slow the two worst fires, which are burning near the town of Lake Arrowhead, about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, and near San Diego at the town of Julian. Both still threaten tens of thousands of homes. In Simi Valley, about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, a third major fire was 40 percent contained, officials said.

"The weather is helping," Ray Snodgrass, deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said on a conference call. "We still have a major threat to both communities. We have a long way to go there yet."

The fires near Los Angeles threaten $8 billion of property, the state forestry department said. Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains was almost encircled by flames feeding on dead trees. The fire claimed as many as 350 homes overnight.

About 40 miles northeast of San Diego, firefighters saved the historic mining town of Julian, after a neighboring town was destroyed yesterday.

"The protective line we put around Julian has held," said Lora Lowes, a spokeswoman for state forestry department.

Lower Temperatures

Lower temperatures today helped firefighters in Lake Arrowhead. Six still-active fires threaten more than 81,000 homes, state officials said today.

"The firefighters were pretty successful at saving a lot of homes," said Dan Hart, another state forestry spokesman. "It's pretty cool and we're able to get people positioned."

One firefighter died and three were injured near San Diego yesterday while battling the largest of the fires that have burned since last week. The firefighter died in the Cedar blaze near Julian. He was identified by the San Francisco Chronicle as Steven Rucker, 38, of the Novato Fire Protection District. Novato is about 28 miles north of San Francisco.

Governor Gray Davis said damage from the fires may exceed $2 billion. Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger stayed in Washington today to seek federal help.

Navy helicopters and Marines were being prepared to help near San Diego, said state forestry director Andrea Tuttle. A break in the weather by tomorrow, with more-humid air and the possibility of light rain, will make it easier to control the flames, she said.

2,532 Homes Lost

About 2,532 homes have been destroyed and 105,000 people evacuated, officials said. As many as 70,000 people were evacuated from the San Bernardino mountains since Sunday, said Tom O'Keefe, head of the forestry department's San Bernardino division.

"Thirty-year veterans are absolutely amazed by what we're seeing," O'Keefe said on a conference call.

The so-called Old Fire near San Bernardino, which has burned since Saturday and which authorities believe was arson, swept west yesterday and entered Lake Arrowhead after it appeared to bypass the community, O'Keefe said.

East of San Diego, fires destroyed the town of Cuyamaca, population 160, sparing the fire station and city hall.

Temperatures in the area have fallen more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) during the week from highs in the 90s and the winds have shifted, blowing in more humid ocean air. Showers are forecast for tomorrow in Los Angeles and Saturday in San Diego, which could bring some relief to firefighters.

"It's real, real damp and it's real still and that's good," Lowes said. --Nicholas Johnston in Washington, (1)(202) 654-1264 or at njohnston3bloomberg.net, and Edvard Pettersson in Los Angeles, (1)(323) 782-4234 or epetterssonbloomberg.net, through the Los Angeles newsroom (1)(323) 782-4220. Editors: Wolfson, Nundy, Torday, Holdcraft, Golum, Reichl. -0- (BN ) Oct/30/2003 20:07 GMT

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