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Offering Solace, Bush Surveys Destruction

Times Staff Writers

President Bush toured the charred forests and communities of San Diego County on Tuesday, as forecasts of weekend rain intensified concerns about possible mudslides in the more than 740,000 acres stripped bare by Southern California’s fires.

“When people see the scope of the fires, the historic nature of the fires, they’ll realize what a superhuman effort you all put in to save lives,” the president told firefighters in Alpine. “We’ve seen the worst of nature” but the “absolute best of mankind.”

Bush, Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger viewed the destruction of the massive Paradise and Cedar fires from the presidential helicopter before touching down in the seared community of Harbison Canyon, east of San Diego, to comfort families whose property had burned.

The president listened as a woman told him how she had lost all the treasured belongings in her home. Trying to console her while controlling his own emotions, Bush reminded her that she still had “the most precious things” in her life: her husband and her daughter.

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“The best thing I can do is to listen and hug and empathize as best as I can empathize,” a moist-eyed Bush told reporters at the end of a 40-minute walking tour of Harbison Canyon.

The president acknowledged that he had brought no additional federal fire aid for Southern California. The federal government has promised about $3 million in assistance, which is about $1,000 for each of the more than 3,400 homes that burned.

The president said he had come here to “answer questions as to whether or not the help that is available is being delivered. Hopefully, I get the truth. I mean, if there is a frustration at the federal level, I need to know about it.”

Above all, Bush said, he came to determine “whether or not the help that is available is being expedited.” After hearing from fire officials and other government representatives, Bush pronounced himself satisfied.

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As the president spoke in the otherwise still and silent canyon, the distant beeping of a tractor backing up could be heard, a signal that rebuilding had begun.

Firefighters fully contained the Cedar fire, the largest of the wildfires, on Tuesday morning and expected to contain the four others by this morning, thanks largely to continued cool, damp weather, which poses a threat of its own: mudslides.

Officials say any substantial rainfall could cause slides on denuded hills, and the National Weather Service warned Tuesday that a storm was expected to hit Southern California on Friday night.

“Rainfall totals with this system certainly look impressive enough to keep a close eye on, especially near burn areas where mud and debris-flow problems could develop,” the Weather Service said in an advisory.

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In San Bernardino County, officials said, sandbags and sand to fill them are available at county fire stations in Devore, Mentone, San Antonio Heights, Angelus Oaks, Lytle Creek, Summit Valley, Fontana, Lake Arrowhead and the county service center at 2824 E. W St. in San Bernardino.

Concerned that continuing rains could wash debris into waterways, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to spend as much as $1 million to clean up fire-ravaged Palmer Canyon, north of Claremont. Forecasters said the rain should continue intermittently through Sunday, with “easily as much as two inches” in most of the burn areas of Southern California, including Harbison Canyon.

During his tour through the canyon, Bush stopped to talk to Jennifer Reichard and her daughter Kathryn, 3, in the driveway of what had been their home and was now a pile of ashes. As he did with three other families along the way, Bush exchanged hugs and pats on the back.

Later he went to a briefing on the wildfires that also was attended by Davis, Schwarzenegger, Agricultural Secretary Ann Veneman and several members of the California congressional delegation, including Reps. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista) and Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon).

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Afterward, the president flew back to Washington.

On Tuesday night at a special polling place set up behind the rapidly emptying evacuation center at San Bernardino International Airport, several evacuees cast ballots in local elections.

“We heard the polls weren’t open in the mountains, and we didn’t know where else to go,” said Sue Brown, 58, who left her home in Lake Arrowhead with her husband, Larry, and their five cats more than a week ago. The Browns waited out the evacuation at a motel in Palm Springs, but drove to the evacuation center to vote in school and water board elections.

The polling place was equipped with a computer that could print out the right ballot for each voter’s precinct.

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