Firefighter, 16 Others Die in Southern California Blazes

SACRAMENTO, California, October 29, 2003 (ENS) - At least 17 people have lost their lives in disastrous wildfires still raging across Southern California. Fire officials predict the death toll will rise as crews move through areas charred by the worst fires in California history, documenting the events of the past week.

One firefighter was killed today and two others were critically injured in the mountain town of Julian while fighting the largest fire in San Diego County, said California Department of Forestry and U.S. Forest Service officals.

The fallen firefighters were battling the Cedar Fire, a 233,192 acre blaze believed to have been started Saturday by a lost hunter who sent up a signal flare near Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County.

Flames are shooting more than 200 feet into the sky, and the Cedar fire has claimed the lives of 10 civilians and one firefighter, and has injured 23 firefighters in addition to the two critically hurt who were evacuated by helicopter today.

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The deadly Cedar fire blazes behind a car from the San Miguel Fire Department. (Photo courtesy California Department of Forestry)
The towns of Ramona, Pine Hills, Julian, Guatay, Cuyamaca, Mt. Laguna, Harrison Park, Whispering Pines, Wynola are threatened, and fire officials estimate the Cedar fire will not be contained until November 5.

More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed over an area from Los Angeles south to the Mexican border, and exhausted crews are turning away from their fire lines discouraged at their ineffectiveness before the blazing walls of flame.

The California fires have now burned more than 600,000 acres, and thousands of people remain evacuated. Nearly 13,000 firefighters and support personnel are battling the huge blazes, according to officials from the National Interagency Fire Center.

In the San Bernardino mountain town of Crestline, a 7-Eleven store was the scene of violent fights on Saturday night and Sunday morning as residents from all over the mountains heard that the store was the only place to pump gas in the entire area from Running Springs to Crestline. The "Mountain News" reports that store owner Tony Tarlochan worked straight through the night pumping gas and intervening to stop the fights until notified that his home had been destroyed by the so-called Old Fire.

Thursday will be critical in southern California as the winds shift from offshore to an onshore flow, fire officials said. This wind shift will result in fires changing direction from west to east, officials predict, worrying that this change will push fires up into areas where severe bug infestations have left large stands of dead and dying timber.

High pressure off the west coast will move westward, allowing winds to turn onshore in southern California. Winds will be in the 15 to 30 mph range with possible gusts to 40 mph. The winds will be stronger over higher elevations, and in the canyons.

The higher winds and low relative humidity will create another critical day for fires in southern California. Winds also increased today over the Great Basin, Rocky Mountain regions, southern New Mexico, west Texas and Oklahoma.

Nationally, four new large fires were reported yesterday, one in Utah, one in Montana, and two in northern California. Firefighters in southern California were able to contain the Cuesta, Otay, and Verdale fires.

Outgoing California Governor Gray Davis today issued an Executive Order designed to reimburse communities for the full costs of fighting wildfires in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, Ventura, and Riverside counties. State officials have estimated the costs of these fires have exceeded $2 billion.

While Davis acknowledged that the state faces its own "unprecedented budget demands," the issue on which he was recalled by California voters earlier this month, he said the order is imperative because is "necessary to assure local government agencies facing this disaster of the continued integrity of California's mutual aid system."

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A house burns in the Cedar fire (Photo courtesy California Department of Forestry)
"The unprecedented costs to our communities in fighting the largest fires in our state's history have overwhelmed their ability to pay for their emergency response," said Davis. "We cannot afford to communities worrying about how they are going to respond to this emergency. They need to be able to marshal all their available resources to fight these wildfires without regard to cost."

California law allows the state to assume a greater share of costs if the Director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services determines that local governments in fire areas are unable to meet the required cost-sharing. Covered services include overtime for firefighters, replacement of damaged equipment, and road repair.

President George W. Bush Tuesday issued a fire disaster declaration for the entire state. Once the federal government issues a disaster declaration, it typically reimburses the state for 75 percent of the costs associated with the disaster. The remaining costs also are split by the state and local governments on a 75/25 basis, respectively. Today's Executive Order will require the state to pick up the entire share of the costs that the federal government does not cover.

Tuesday night, after viewing the fire damage, Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response, Michael Brown, approved a Fire Management Assistance Grant for the Whitmore fire in Shasta County, the ninth such grant for the state just in the last week.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has set up a primary Disaster Field Office, the command center for the federal and state response, in Pasadena. Today, federal and state officials worked to determine locations for satellite field offices in San Diego and in the San Bernardino/Riverside area.

FEMA employees will help staff a disaster assistance center organized by the city of San Diego. FEMA will organize additional Disaster Recovery Centers this week to provide face to face help for fire victims.

Teams of FEMA community relations specialists will begin to move into the affected disaster areas to provide face-to-face information, advice, and assistance to disaster victims.

The State of California Insurance Commissioner has established an information line for the public to use for questions on insurance matters. The toll free number is 1-800-927-HELP. Information is also available online at: www.insurance.ca.gov.