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. Billion dollars in damage as California fires rage into 4th day

More than one billion dollars worth of property has been destroyed so far in the worst affected areas of fire-stricken California, officials said Wednesday. A spokeswoman for San Diego County told AFP the total cost of fire damage had exceeded one billion dollars and was expected to go higher. The figure did not include losses for business and commerce. "So far the costs across the San Diego County region are estimated at just over one billion dollars and we expect that to increase," Lesley Kirk, a spokeswoman for San Diego County told AFP. The costs were calculated solely on the basis of property destroyed, Kirk said. She said 345 million dollars worth of damage had occurred in areas of San Diego County outside the city. San Diego has emerged as the ground zero of the California wildfire crisis, which has seen an estimated 500,000 people evacuated and more than 1,300 homes destroyed.
by Staff Writers
Los Angeles (AFP) Oct 24, 2007
Fires raging across California have caused more than one billion dollars in property damage and left three people dead, officials said Wednesday, as a lull in winds allowed firefighters to make their first significant progress in combating the flames.

Around 1,700 buildings have been destroyed in the 18 fires that have erupted since Sunday, forcing an estimated 500,000 people to flee their homes and scorching 172,000-hectares (426,000 acres) of tinder-dry countryside stretching from celebrity-studded Malibu to beyond the Mexican border.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said a total of three people had died and 40 people had been injured in the fires, the worst to hit California since devastating 2003 blazes which claimed 22 lives.

So far 1,664 structures, including 1,436 homes, have been destroyed while a further 25,000 buildings remained threatened, Schwarzenegger added.

The fast-spreading infernos have been fuelled by powerful desert winds gusting across the region, making conditions hazardous for thousands of exhausted firefighters who have tackled the flames relentlessly.

However a respite from the winds forecast to continue through the remainder of the week enabled firefighters on Wednesday to make great strides in containing three of the five biggest blazes.

"The wind stopped blowing and that made our lives a lot easier," said a Los Angeles County Fire Department official tackling the Buckweed fire, which has charred 15,000 hectares but is now 94 percent contained.

"We really didn't expect to have an area that big contained by now," the spokesman added.

But the two biggest California fires, covering around 108,000 hectares of San Diego County, were both only 10 percent contained.

President George W. Bush formally declared the region a disaster zone, paving the way for federal funds to boost the relief effort.

"Today I've signed a major disaster declaration which will then enable federal funds to start headed towards the families who have been affected by these fires," said Bush, who is to tour California on Thursday.

Some 8,900 firefighters -- including 2,600 prison inmates trained to tackle fires -- are battling the flames supported by 90 firefighting aircraft, including a DC-10, 25 air tankers and 40 helicopters.

Schwarzenegger, who has described the destruction as "terrible and tragic," meanwhile paid tribute to the weary firefighters.

"They are really extraordinary, they are working 24 hours a day, around-the-clock. In fact many of them have been working 36 or 48 hours without stopping," Schwarzenegger said.

Lesley Kirk, a spokeswoman for San Diego County told AFP the total cost of fire damage had exceeded one billion dollars and was expected to go higher. The figure only included property destroyed and did not include losses sustained by business and commerce, she said.

"So far the costs across the San Diego County region are estimated at just over one billion dollars and we expect that to increase," Kirk said.

San Diego has emerged as the ground zero of the crisis, where the bulk of hundreds of thousands of evacuations have taken place.

A total of 318,000 households had been ordered evacuated in San Diego, where officials have put the numbers of displaced people at 500,000.

A spokeswoman from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services stressed that exact figures for evacuees were hard to pin down, and would not comment on estimates that the state-wide total could be closer to 900,000 people.

"The potential for the number of evacuees reaching that level exists, but we are not in a position to make that kind of estimate," Joint Information Center spokeswoman Mary Ann Aldridge told AFP.

By late afternoon Wednesday, 5,000 evacuees remained in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, down from 12,000 who had spent the night at the facility on Tuesday.

The causes of the different fires raging throughout the state vary, with a fallen power line believed to be the cause of a blaze in Malibu and arson blamed for a fire in Orange County.

Malibu's evacuees were given the green light to return home as officials confirmed that a 1,800 hectare blaze near the Pacific Ocean seaside enclave had been snuffed out.

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Heroic firefighters toiling against California inferno
Jamul, California (AFP) Oct 24, 2007
Braving ferocious, fast-moving infernos to save property and lives, California's weary firefighters are once more being feted as the heroes of the crisis ravaging the region.

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