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Fire losses shoot into dark skies

SAN DIEGO -- A merciful easing of the winds fueling Southern California's sprawling wildfires finally gave fire crews a chance to fight back against some blazes Wednesday, and weary residents could take solace in an overriding sign of hope: Just one person has died from the flames.

That contrasts to 22 dead from a fire of similar magnitude in 2003. And while the final toll has yet to be tallied from this week's fires, officials were crediting an automated, reverse 911 calling system that prompted the or- derly evacuation of more than half a million people -- 10 times the number evacuated four years ago.

"They are more determined that people leave," said Steve Levstik, who got his call 15 minutes before flames swept through his Rancho Bernardo neighborhood.

"It was very intense. On the call, it was like, 'This area, go! This area, go!' In 2003 there was less guidance. It was like, 'Just pay attention to the news, and if it looks bad, leave.' "

On Wednesday, winds dropped to 21 to 36 mph, considerably less than the fierce gusts of up to 100 mph that whipped fire zones earlier in the week.

The improving weather allowed for a greater aerial assault on the flames and helped firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes. Helicopters and air tankers dropped 30 to 35 loads of water on two fires that have burned hundreds of homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Lake Arrowhead.

"They're taking it down considerably," said Dennis Bouslaugh of the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighters had fully contained the three major fires in Los Angeles County by nightfall, and largely contained many of the fires north of San Diego.

Despite the progress, none of the six major blazes in San Diego County was more than 15 percent contained, and those fires threatened more than 8,500 homes. The top priority was a fire in San Bernardino County that threatened 6,000 homes and continued to rage out of control.

This week's fires have destroyed about 1,600 homes and burned 700 square miles across seven counties, from Ventura in the north all the way south into Mexico. The burned area is about half the size of Stanislaus County.

The state Office of Emergency Services said 28,000 homes remain threatened.

Property damage has reached at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone.

President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California, and is scheduled to visit the region today.

The death toll may rise as fires continue to burn and authorities return to neighborhoods where homes were turned to piles of ash, but displaced homeowners and authorities were relieved that early reports were so low.

The San Diego County medical examiner officially listed six deaths connected to the blazes, but he included five who died during the evacuation but were not directly killed by the fire. In 2003, all but a handful of the 22 dead succumbed to the flames.

Terry Dooley, who was ordered out of his home with his wife and three sons Monday, said authorities learned important lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 California fires that wiped out 3,640 homes and blackened 750,000 acres during a two-week period.

"They learned how to get things done more quickly," Dooley said as he waited at a roadblock Wednesday to return home to San Diego's upscale, densely populated Rancho Bernardo area.

In addition to the reverse-911 system, authorities shut down schools, halted mail delivery and urged people to stay home and off the roads if they were not in danger.

Another factor separating these fires from other disasters has been wealth. Unlike many of the poor neighborhoods flooded by Katrina, the hardest-hit areas in California were filled with upscale homes, with easy access to wide streets. Less wealthy areas, including rural enclaves and horse farms that stretch through the mountains east of San Diego, benefited from easy road access and small crowds.

On Wednesday, about two dozen people gathered at a police barricade in Rancho Bernardo, which was one of the hardest-hit areas, hoping to retrieve medication and belongings, or simply to see if their homes were intact.

What awaited many was an apocalyptic scene: entire streets leveled, cars reduced to charred hulks of metal, homes with only chimneys left standing. House after house, 29 on one street alone, were reduced to piles of blackened concrete, twisted metal and white ash.

Six of San Diego County's 42 evacuation centers were full Wednesday, but there was plenty of space at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL's Chargers, where 10,000 people sought refuge.

The causes of many fires remained under investigation. A 30-square-mile Orange County fire that destroyed nine homes was believed to be arson because authorities found three ignition points within a short distance.

In San Bernardino County, a motorcyclist who authorities say set a small fire in a rural foothill area of the San Bernardino Mountains has been booked for investigation of arson, but investigators said they didn't know whether he was connected to any of the larger fires.

In the city of San Bernardino, police said they shot and killed a man who fled Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire. After a chase, the man, whose name was not released, backed his car into a police cruiser and an officer opened fire, police said.

The only confirmed death from the flames was Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego. He was ordered to evacuate, but he didn't leave and authorities left him to take care of other evacuations.

Al Guerin, a San Diego County assistant sheriff, estimated only 100 to 200 people ignored evacuation orders. That included 20 people in the rural community of Jamul, near the Mexican border.

Firefighters returned to save them.

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