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Firefighters Working to Gain Upper Hand on San Diego Fires

Firefighters today worked to gain the upper hand on wildfires that have burnt nearly 350,000 acres in San Diego County, despite weekend winds which could either hinder or help containment efforts.

Cooling weather and slowing winds in recent days have helped aid containment efforts, but a ``mild'' Santa Ana event is predicted for today, said Rick Hutchinson of Cal Fire. But he added, that could be good news, because a wind shift could blow the flames back into areas previously burned.

As containment numbers increased, fire officials have become confident that the three major blazes -- the Witch Creek, Rice Canyon and Harris Fire -- will be under full control in 10 days from now, and the Poomacha Fire by Monday, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Witch Creek Fire, which was about 45 percent contained, has become the fourth-largest blaze in California history, leveling about 1,060 homes and scorching some of the same terrain denuded by the biggest state conflagration on record -- the 2003 Cedar Fire.  The cause of the Witch Creek Fire remains under investigation. It began Sunday near Santa Ysabel, has blackened 197,990 acres, killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 structures from Ramona to Rancho Santa Fe.

The Rice Canyon Fire -- which was caused by arcing power lines – has held at about 9,000 acres and was 60 percent contained, though it is moving east, fire officials said.

The cause of three other fires around the county are under investigation. Flames have burned 19,350 acres at Camp Pendleton, where the fires are 80 percent contained, said Kevin Crawford of the Carlsbad Fire Department.  The acreage total for the Harris Fire, in the southern part of the county, is up to 84,300, with 20 percent containment, he said.

The Harris Fire -- which has scorched 86,000 acres along the U.S.-Mexico vborder, is still burning towards the northeast and is 35 percent contained, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Crews were moved into the Lawson Valley and Carve Acres area in preparation to protect these communities should the fire cross Lyons Valley Road, according to last night's report on the San Diego County Emergency Page.

Meantime, the Poomacha Fire continues to be a major concern as it burns along Mount Palomar, threatening the observatory, said Rick Hutchinson of Cal Fire.

The 42,000-acre blaze has destroyed about 78 homes and 19 outbuildings and is 35 percent contained. Fourteen firefighters have been slightly injured battling the blaze.

The fire was active near Pauma Reservation and Palomar Mountain. It entered the Aqua Tibia Wilderness, according to a report on the San Diego County Emergency Homepage.

Control operations within the area have been difficult due to the steep terrain and accessibility issues, according to the report.

Ron Lane, the director of the county Office of Emergency Services, said that about 1,000 residents of Lake Henshaw, the La Jolla Indian Reservation, and Mesa Grande were told to leave their homes yesterday morning.

The fire started in a structure on the Indian reservation.

The fires, which began Sunday, have killed at least 14 people -- with 38 others missing -- caused at least $1 billion in damage and destroyed more than 1,200 homes, prompting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in San Diego and six other counties. President Bush visited the area

Thursday and declared the county a major disaster area.

``To the extent people need the help of the federal government, we will
help," Bush said.

About 45,000 people remain out of their homes because of the fires, with 12,600 of them in shelters set up at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and at schools around the county. The schools will remain operating as shelters through Monday.

About 1,237 residences have been destroyed in the fires, including 75 in Escondido and 92 in Poway. About 60 percent of the losses were in unincorporated areas, said county Supervisor Ron Roberts.

San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman said 366 homes were lost in the city, and 34 more were damaged.

Economic losses are expected to exceed $1 billion, with some insurance
industry analysts putting the figure around $1.6 billion.

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