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Some Rain Helps Fiery California

Railroad workers stand next to a damaged coach at the site of a train derailment near the town of Uglovka, some 250 miles northwest of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009. An express train carrying hundreds of passengers from Moscow to St. Petersburg derailed, killing dozens of people and injuring scores of others in what may have been an act of sabotage, Russian officials said. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev
Fog and drizzle are lending a hand to weary firefighters struggling to save resort towns in Southern California from the raging wildfires that have killed at least 20 people since last week.

"It is helping, but it is a long way from putting any fires out," said Ray Snodgrass, chief deputy director of the California Forestry Department. "It's the respite we were hoping for."

Firefighters dug in to protect hundreds of homes still threatened in San Bernardino and San Diego counties. A few hundred acres of thick forest were burned by one of the most devastating and erratic of the fires — a 50,000-acre blaze east of Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains.

"That's minimal for this fire, considering 20,000 burned the first day," said Battalion Chief Dan Odom of the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The wildfires have blazed for more than a week across Southern California, destroying more than 2,600 homes and blackening around 730,000 acres. On Thursday, seven major fires were still burning in four counties.

Wednesday night, a firestorm swept through Cedar Glen, a popular resort area east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Mountains. On Thursday, CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports it looked like a nuclear nightmare – at least 350 homes incinerated by flames so hot they melted cars and reduced almost everything else to ash.

But John Lucas' house was still standing. Lucas stayed behind to fight the fire all by himself, with his $30,000 private arsenal of pumps, hoses, water tanks and fire retardant.

"You always plan for the worst and hope for the best. This was the worst. It couldn't have been any worse," said Lucas, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter.

The fire had advanced to within 12 miles of the mountain resort town of Big Bear by Thursday morning as crews spread fire-resistant gel on houses and cleared debris around them. They were helped by a heavy fog that rolled in overnight. The forecast called for highs in the mid-50s, down from over 100 degrees over the weekend.

"So that's the good news, but there is a red-flag warning for high winds up to 40 mph," said Bonni Corcoran, a fire information officer.

In San Diego County, where the state's largest fire killed a firefighter on Wednesday, many of his comrades wore black bands on their badges. Steve Rucker, 38, died while battling a blaze that has burned more than 270,000 acres and some 1,500 homes. He was the first firefighter to die in this outbreak of fires.

"We have a somber mood and we need to be somber, but it's time to move ahead," incident commander John Hawkins told the firefighters. "Get your chin up and move out."

About 100 fire engines have encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. Saving the town of 3,500, a popular weekend getaway renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards, is the county's top priority.

Light rain, fog and drizzle have been reported in Julian, but winds of 25 to 30 mph are also part of the weather outlook. As the winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near town and forced some crews to retreat.

A blaze of more than 100,000 acres on the line between Ventura and Los Angeles counties has been winding down, with cooler weather and high humidity helping firefighters knock down the flames that had come within a few feet of homes.

In all, nearly 12,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.

The state is spending an estimated $9 million a day fighting the wildfires, a near doubling of the estimate just two days ago. The total cost of fighting the fires could reach $200 million, and the toll on the California economy has been put at $2 billion.