CBSN

Weather Helps Fight Calif. Fires

Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighter Chuck Glines gets away from a backfire at the Cerritos Fire, burning south of Corona, Calif., Wenesday, May 5, 2004. Cooler temperatures and diminishing winds aided firefighters as they entered their third day of battle against wildfires that raged across Southern California and forced the evacuation of thousands of people.
AP
Firefighters got help from cooler weather and diminishing winds Wednesday as they tried to contain a trio of wildfires that have burned more than 22,000 acres and destroyed at least 14 homes in Southern California.

Evacuation orders were lifted as hundreds of people began returning to homes near two large fires in Riverside County, an inland region east of Los Angeles, that consumed acres of grass and low-lying scrub.

"I hope the weather holds out," said Jane Scribner, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. "It's cooler. It really does make a difference."

Moist air expected to move in from the Pacific could help slow the wildfires, and temperatures were expected to drop to the low- to mid-80s for the rest of the week.

The fire season started Monday - three weeks earlier than last year - in forests ripe for flames as a result of both dry weather and numerous dead trees, killed off by bark beetles.

Julie Hutchinson of the California Department of Forestry tells CBS News Correspondent Manuel Gallegus that it looks like firefighters and homeowners are up against "a very long fire season, a very long fire season. I think we're going to be doing this all summer."

To Californians, and government officials, the early wildfires are an unpleasant reminder of the 2003 fire season: the worst ever for Southern California, with 26 people killed and 3,600 homes burned last October.

The 11,000-acre Cerrito Fire still threatened about 1,000 homes and 12 commercial buildings in the northeastern Lake Elsinore area, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The blaze was 65 percent contained Wednesday evening, with full containment expected Friday morning, the forestry department said.

Michael Delgado, 20, whose Corona home was among those threatened, said he could see flames from his window Tuesday night. He said he was concerned the fire season had begun so early.

"It seems like it's just starting to get hotter, and then there is a fire," he said.

Authorities have charged Richard Drew Brown, 44, with recklessly causing the fire. Witnesses told authorities Brown dragged a large piece of steel behind his vehicle, creating sparks that started several fires in Temescal Canyon, the forestry department said.

An arraignment for Brown, a self-employed handyman who reportedly had intended to sell the metal for scrap, was rescheduled Wednesday to May 14. He was being held on $25,000 bail, and could receive up to seven years in prison if convicted of the two felony counts.

The 8,800-acre Eagle Fire, south of Temecula in Riverside County, destroyed 41 structures, including 14 homes, officials said. Containment was estimated at 70 percent, with full containment expected by Friday.

The fire was moving away from homes and a mandatory evacuation order was lifted late Wednesday, said forestry department information officer Mitch Villalpando.

One casualty of the Eagle Fire is the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, a cluster of about ten buildings which for decades has been a place for musicians and artists to create their work. Among the items lost in the fire are a Steinway piano believed to have been played by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and, hundreds of antique music manuscripts that belonged to 1920s concert pianist Ellen Dorland.

In Santa Barbara County, the 1,110-acre Cachuma Fire in the Los Padres National Forest was 20 percent contained. In San Diego County, the 2,050-acre India Fire on the Camp Pendleton Marine base was fully contained early Wednesday. No structures were damaged.

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, the Agriculture Department agreed to give $120 million for dead tree removal in the three Southern California counties hit hardest by devastating wildfires in the region last fall.

Congress had designated that the money go to San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, but a requirement that the counties match 25 percent of the money with local funds had kept them from receiving it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced Wednesday that the requirement had been lifted, and that a matching-fund requirement on another $48 million for fuel-reduction projects had been reduced from 50 percent to 25 percent.