Biggest SoCal Wildfire Contained

President Bush, right, views wildfire damage with homeowner Shannon Hayes, left, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Brown, center, during a tour of Harbison Canyon, outside of San Diego, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2003. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) AP

Firefighters contained the largest and deadliest of Southern California's vast wildfires Tuesday and made progress against others as the death toll grew to 22.

Rain and snow, with chilly temperatures, have aided firefighters in the mountains in recent days. Many firefighters had been sent home, leaving remaining crews to douse hot spots and watch for new ones.

San Diego County's 280,000-plus-acre Cedar Fire was fully surrounded by fire breaks Tuesday.

"It's a load off," said Lora Lowes, spokeswoman for the Cedar Fire firefighting effort.

Four other fires were expected to be contained by day's end.

Mop-up crews have fanned out in San Diego County's High Country to make sure the fire's containment line will hold, reports CBS News Correspondent Stephan Kaufman.

"San Diego has a lot of brush and grass, as compared to the rest of the country, so you really need to use a chainsaw to get through the brush," said fire crew member Marcelle Van Vourhies.

Even with the fire contained, it's still dangerous.

"Hazards could be the wind when it's blowing, and there are small flames in the brush. It just accelerates the flames," she said.

Other hazards include falling trees and branches, downed power lines and "stump holes, which are trees that have burned all the way down into the ground to the roots, so it's just white ash and it's really hot. If you step in it, it depends on how deep the root is, you could fall to your knees in hot ash," said Van Voorhies.

Crews planned to begin moving away from the Cedar Fire's front lines to hunt for hot spots and damaged homes — and possibly bodies — that hadn't been counted yet.

"They're going area by area, systematically, to the communities that burned," Lowes said.

The fires had destroyed at least 3,587 homes and blackened more than 743,000 acres of brush and timber.

President Bush toured San Diego County's fire areas Tuesday with Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

From the air and on the ground, the president got a first hand look at the scorched earth that is all that is left in areas hit hardest by the wildfires, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller. On a walking tour, Mr. Bush saw the burnt remnants of houses and spent time consoling people who have lost their homes. He told reporters afterwards that a lot of people lost all their possessions, but their spirit is strong. He said the worst of nature can bring out the best in human beings.

San Bernardino County authorities added two more suspected heart-attack fatalities from a 91,200-acre fire there, raising the county's toll to six. The new deaths were reported by authorities who are investigating arson as the cause of the blaze and could result in murder charges.

More than 27,000 people remained displaced from their homes, but that was well down from the 80,000 at the peak of the fires, said Carl DeWing, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

Sylvia Illman, forced to flee the community of Lake Arrowhead, said that after a week in a pop-up tent parked in a friend's driveway, she found herself arguing with her husband and snapping needlessly at her two boys, ages 5 and 3.

"We can't help it. The stress level is unbelievable," she said. "I want to go home."

Many evacuees from Big Bear began returning home on Sunday. But much of the Lake Arrowhead area remained off-limits.

The Old Fire in San Bernardino County, the last of the blazes to threaten communities, was 93 percent contained as it smoldered in forest atop the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles.

Elsewhere, the Paradise Fire was 80 percent contained at 56,700 acres; San Bernardino County's Grand Prix Fire was 98 percent contained after burning more than 59,000 acres; and the 64,000-acre Piru Fire in Ventura County was 85 percent surrounded.

Davis said Monday that, in consultation with Schwarzenegger, he had appointed a commission to review the firefighting effort and make recommendations to prevent future destruction from fires.

The commission will examine reducing "barriers that prevent expeditious response of military resources," development of an interstate or regional mutual aid system, and updating local building and planning regulations for high fire-threat zones and brush clearance.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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