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Death Toll Rises in California Wildfires

Marines stop cars at the entrance of Camp Pendlenton, Calif., on Wednesday. Thousands of homes are being threatened by the advancing wildfires in Southern California.
Gabriel Bouys
Marines stop cars at the entrance of Camp Pendlenton, Calif., on Wednesday. Thousands of homes are being threatened by the advancing wildfires in Southern California.
Hear a Malibu, Calif., man talk about his plan to protect his house on <em>Morning Edition</em>
Hear Steve Inskeep and Lynn Neary talk about how NASA is helping fight the California fires on <em>Morning Edition</em>

The bodies of two people believed to have died in the Southern California wildfires were found in the ruins of a burned-out home Thursday, bringing the total number of fire-related deaths to at least eight, officials said.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said medical examiners are working to establish the identities of the two, whose bodies were found by recovery crews in Poway, Calif.

Officials warned that the number of dead could rise as authorities return to neighborhoods where homes burned. In 2003, 22 people lost their lives in a series of fires that lasted nearly two weeks.


Bush Arrives in California

President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, arrived in California Thursday afternoon for a helicopter tour of the devastated areas with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"It's a sad situation out there in Southern California," the president said before leaving for California. "I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts. They just need to know a lot of folks care about them."

Two fires that burned 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County were fully contained Thursday, as the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that have fanned the flames since the weekends all but disappeared.

But the availability of electricity is now a concern. A wildfire cut a main power link with Arizona, while another blaze near Camp Pendleton, Calif., was threatening the main north-south power corridor that connects San Diego with the rest of California.


Mexico is sending additional power, said Sempra Utilities Chief Operating Officer Michael Niggli.

About 19,500 customers were without power Wednesday either because of downed lines or to ensure the safety of firefighters, officials said.

Fires Remain Strong

Even with the dminishing winds, the county remains a tinderbox.

Firefighters cut fire lines around the major blazes in San Diego County, 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.

So far, at least 15 fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes in Southern California and burned nearly 460,000 acres in an area that stretches from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

$1 Billion in Losses

Losses total at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and include a third of the state's avocado crop. The losses are half as high as those in Southern California's 2003 fires, but are certain to rise.

More than 500,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County alone, part of the largest mass evacuation in California history.

"We are focusing more on recovery and getting these people back up on their feet again," San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said.

In the middle of the arc of fire, the Santiago Fire in Orange County had burned nearly 20,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. Only 50 percent contained, it is a suspected arson fire.

Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to help investigate. Authorities said a smaller, more recent fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.

Police shot and killed a man who fled Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire in the city of San Bernardino, Calif.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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