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A weather 'blessing' aids battle

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Under cool, moist skies, firefighters on Saturday made significant strides against the remaining fires in Southern California. Displaced residents streamed back to their homes, and hard-hit San Diegans prepared to cheer on their Chargers in a football stadium that, just days before, had been an emergency shelter for thousands.

Firefighters hoped that balmy temperatures would help them maintain their gains on many fronts today. In the mountains of San Bernardino County, the nearly 13,000-acre Slide fire was 65% contained by Saturday evening. Earlier in the day, it had been only 25% contained.

"This is a kind of blessing," said meteorologist Valerie L. Meyers at an evening briefing in Running Springs.

Even as something approaching normality returned to many areas, firefighters worked feverishly to take advantage of the comparatively low temperatures and light breezes. Some forecasters were predicting that the fire-triggering blasts of Santa Ana winds would return, although perhaps not as severely, at week's end.

In all, 1,997 houses had been listed as destroyed by Saturday night -- an increase of 222 from the total listed on Friday -- as officials continued to assess damage.

At the 27,521-acre Santiago fire, a cliffhanger that was still threatening dozens of homes in Orange's County's Silverado Canyon, a sprinkle of rain raised the hopes of weary firefighters and frustrated residents. At least 16 homes have been destroyed overall in the arson-triggered blaze.

"The threat is diminishing day by day," said county Battalion Chief Pat Antrim, himself a resident of the canyon for 46 years. "We're getting a little drizzle, which is better than hot wind."

By evening, firefighters said they had made steady progress, but Orange County's rustic canyon communities remained under a mandatory evacuation order.

Forecasters said the winds would change direction today, bringing slightly drier, warmer weather to the fire regions in Orange and San Diego counties. Moister air is to return on Tuesday.

In San Diego, 19,000 residents remained under evacuation orders, but local political and tourism leaders lost no time pitching the city's charms to prospective visitors.

"We want the message to go out across the world: San Diego is open for business," Mayor Jerry Sanders said at a morning news conference at the San Diego Zoo.

As the mayor spoke, families, out-of-state tourists and couples streamed through the zoo's entrance. Sanders said only one convention bailed out during the fires and that plans were still on for a popular golf tournament and a major neuroscience convention this week.

San Diego authorities said the city was almost entirely "repopulated" -- a judgment echoed at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Two animals died there as smoke poured through the area, but park officials disclosed that six more were born: three gazelles, a fringe-eared oryx, a Ugandan kob (an antelope), and a dik-dik (an antelope native to eastern Africa).

Officials warned residents of the thefts, scams and price-gouging that seem to trail every disaster.

Lt. Phil Brust of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department said six people had been arrested on suspicion of looting in the last week, and 128 looting reports had been fielded by his office.

Playing for bigger stakes, an out-of-town company snapped up 50 apartments in the Rancho Bernardo area and tripled the rent, the mayor said. Alerted by an evacuee, city officials pressured the company to offer the apartments at the pre-fire rent.

Fly-by-night contractors were given a stern warning by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who showed up with other state officials for a morning briefing at the fire command center in Irvine Regional Park.

"If anyone tries to exploit this tragedy, I will make sure you will pay for it for the rest of your life," the governor said, also vowing that investigators would arrest those responsible for igniting two blazes -- including the destructive Santiago fire -- and perhaps another two in the region's string of fires.

So far, more than 1,000 tips on the Santiago fire have poured in to the Orange County sheriff's office, where deputies want to question the driver of a white Ford F-150 seen leaving the area where it began Sunday evening.

San Diego fire investigators appealed to the public for information about a 44-year-old Los Angeles man in custody for allegedly impersonating a firefighter at the Rice fire in Fallbrook, where his truck was loaded with firefighting gear. They said William Reed Brock, who was on probation for a drug offense, was not a suspect in the fires.

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said he had declared an insurance emergency and that his office was working with companies to cut the red tape for homeowners filing claims. He said a task force of 100 fraud investigators from his office had fanned out in the fire-devastated areas looking for unscrupulous contractors and other "scam artists," he said.

On Saturday, the state also announced cash grants of an additional $10,000 for some who have suffered fire losses. Individuals who have already received the maximum FEMA award must apply through that agency, which will forward applications to the state Department of Social Services.

Throughout Southern California, bad air was a big concern Saturday. However, Camp Pendleton reopened fitness facilities for its Marines and a spokesman for the NFL players' union said "we feel very confident" that the air won't endanger players in today's matchup between the Chargers and the Houston Texans.

A week after the start of the first of the fires that charred the region, the cool weather and receding flames allowed people to tackle the tough business of getting their lives back together.

In the San Diego County mountain town of Ramona, authorities cautioned residents about drinking tap water until tests show it is healthful. Other mountain communities also experienced water problems because their reservoirs had been polluted by a cascade of ash.

For John Gould, 75, lack of water was just one of many frustrations. He has a well on his property, but he said electricity was not expected to be restored until Nov. 7.

That's why he shelled out $500 for a generator.

"I need 220 volts to turn on the well," Gould said. "And I have a swimming pool that looks like the black lagoon."

Also in Ramona, Melissa Puyot sifted through her home's ashes and found a number of cherished mementos , including photo albums.

"This is a positive," she said. "I will not let this fire beat me down."

In San Bernardino County's Running Springs, Eric and Jennifer Lee reopened the grocery store he manages.

At about 9 a.m., they unlocked the doors, dumped the chicken and beef, wiped down the shelves and left nothing in the deli but decorative gourds. Otherwise, the store looked much the same as when they had fled Monday night.

It was the second time they had done this in four years.

"After this and the Old fire, I wonder, why did we move up here? Is this going to happen every four years?" said Jennifer Lee, 31.

In San Diego, residents were preparing for another kind of familiarity: County officials opened five assistance centers providing sand bags and seeds -- tools to keep burned hillsides from sliding in rains to come.

tony.perry@latimes.com

ashley.powers@latimes.com

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Times staff writers Tami Abdollah, Anna Gorman, David Haldane, Seema Mehta, Jeffrey L. Rabin, H. G. Reza and Deborah Schoch also contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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