Calif. Wildfires Death Toll Rising

U.S. Forest Service firefighter Tyson Large cuts a burning tree into sections in an effort to create a containment line around the so-called Slide Fire, Oct. 25, 2007, in San Bernardino, Calif., near the Snow Valley Ski Resort. (AP Photo/ The Press-Enterprise, Greg Vojtko) ***MANDATORY CREDIT, MAGS OUT, NO SALES*** AP/The Press-Enterprise/Vojtko

The death toll is mounting in Southern California, as hundreds of thousands of evacuees hope for the best, and firefighters push forward in a difficult and exhausting battle.

At least 21 major fires are still burning, with 1,780 homes destroyed, 10 to 14 fire-related deaths, 52 injured firefighters, 30 injured civilians, and 12,465 people in 45 official evacuation centers. The fires, which began a week ago, have so far burned nearly half a million acres, including land on eight Indian reservations, with property damage overall estimated at well over a billion dollars.

Four charred bodies - three men and a woman - were found Thursday afternoon at the site of what authorities say appears to have been a migrant camp just east of San Diego.

The bodies were found in a wooded area near Barrett Junction, along the Mexican border in unincorporated San Diego County, said Paul Parker, a spokesman for the San Diego County medical examiner's office.

It was not clear how long ago the victims died or if they were victims of the wildfires that have killed at least three other people.

"They could have been out there a while," Parker said of the three, who were found just east of a Border Patrol checkpoint on Route 94.

The area was burned by the Harris Fire, which straddles the Mexican border. That was the same fire that claimed the life of 52-year-old Tecate man who refused to leave his house when the area was evacuated Sunday.

Earlier in the day, crews found two burned bodies in a gutted house. Medical examiners are trying to establish the identities of the bodies found near Poway, north of San Diego.

The death toll could rise as authorities return to neighborhoods where homes burned.

Visiting the fire zone Thursday, talking to homeowners, government officials, and firefighters, President Bush dismissed comparisons between the federal government's handling of Hurricane Katrina and the southern California wildfires, stressing that the focus now should be on helping residents overcome the devastation of the blazes.

Mr. Bush met with stricken homeowners in Rancho Bernardo, draped his arms around them and promised they would not be left alone to fend for themselves. Jay and Kendra Jeffocat shook his hands. Kendra became emotional and fought back tears as she surveyed the ruins, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.

"There's all kinds of time for historians to compare this response to that response," Mr. Bush said. "You better ask the governor how we're doing.

Schwarzenegger, standing next to Mr. Bush on a cul de sac, said the president reached out to him earlier this week before he even had a chance to make the call himself. "I call this quick action - quicker than I expected, I can tell you that," the governor said.

"We've got a big problem out here," said Mr. Bush, near the end of his tour of the damage. "We want the people to know there's a better day ahead - that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life's going to be better," he said. "And to the extent that the federal government can help you, we want to do so."

"We're not going to forget you in Washington, D.C.," said the president, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region and was accompanied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Firefighters, aided by the calming Santa Ana winds and dropping temperatures, are now working to gain control of some of the most severe fires.

Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, which sheltered more than 10,000 people at the height of the evacuations, will officially shut down at
noon as an evacuation center, reports CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes.

After days of not knowing whether they had homes to which they could return, some of the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated were being allowed back into their neighborhoods, and shelters were emptying. More than 500,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County alone, part of the largest mass evacuation in California history.

Officials also lifted evacuation orders for hard-hit Escondido.

The hot, dry Santa Ana winds that have whipped the blazes into a destructive, indiscriminate fury since the weekend were expected to all but disappear. "That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts," National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.

Even with the slackening winds, San Diego County remains a tinderbox. Firefighters cut fire lines around the major blazes, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained. More than 8,500 homes were still threatened.

Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003.

To the northeast, in the San Bernardino County mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said 6,000 homes remained in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.

The fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters that dumped more than 30 loads of water.
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