Stubborn fires continued to rage through wilderness areas of San Diego and Orange counties Thursday, and the toll rose with the grim discovery of six more bodies of people caught in the infernos. But the danger to homes and businesses subsided and many of those affected by Southern California’s latest natural disaster began taking the first steps toward a return to normalcy.
President Bush briefly visited the fire zone, taking a helicopter tour over the devastated San Diego community of Rancho Bernardo and later meeting with evacuees and firefighters.
Bush was generous with hugs and sympathy, and also promised federal assistance to victims of the fires, which ravaged portions of seven counties, destroying 1,775 homes .
“To the extent people need the help of the federal government, we will help,” Bush pledged.
Thursday morning, two bodies were found in a burned-out home in Escondido. Using dental records, officials identified the victims as Victoria Katherine Fox, 55, and her husband, John Christopher Bain, 58.
Later Thursday, U.S. Border Patrol agents found the charred bodies of four suspected illegal immigrants believed to have died in the Harris fire, which swept through a rugged area east of San Diego that is crisscrossed by hundreds of migrant trails.
Agents on routine patrol discovered the bodies at the bottom of a canyon north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, near an area where four illegal immigrants were rescued Sunday.
“It’s very tragic,” said Gloria Chavez, a Border Patrol assistant chief based in San Diego.
Even in the best weather conditions, the steep canyons and mountains make for treacherous treks. Since 2001, at least 30 migrants have died trying to cross in the area.
About a dozen suspected illegal immigrants burned in the Harris fire are being treated at the UC San Diego Regional Burn Unit. Several remain in critical condition, said Alberto Lozano, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.
The six victims raised the overall death toll to seven.
In addition, three people have died in auto accidents related to the fires, and seven evacuees in San Diego County have died, including two whose deaths were reported Thursday.
Thursday marked the second straight day of weather that was dramatically more favorable to firefighters, with calmer winds and higher humidity.
“This is really allowing us to make great progress and really attack those fires,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state fire agency.
Howard Windsor, a forestry department incident commander, was cautiously optimistic when he told evacuees at Steele Canyon High School in southern San Diego County that “we’re getting the upper hand” on the Harris fire, one of two major fires still burning in the San Diego area. By late Thursday, it was 20% contained.
Fire officials said the blaze was no longer threatening any residential areas.
Farther north, the larger Witch fire was 30% contained. At nearly 200,000 acres, it has become the fourth-largest fire in California history. (The largest, the 2003 Cedar fire, burned some of the same terrain.) It also is the most destructive of the latest spate of fires, having destroyed 1,061 houses.
In Orange County, the Santiago fire was still burning along the ridgelines of the Santa Ana Mountains and threatening Silverado Canyon and its 750 homes.
Fire authorities said the fate of Silverado Canyon depends on whether the favored onshore winds continue to blow.
“If the wind stays normal, everything will be fine,” said Mike Rohde, a battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority. If not, it will be a “totally different story.”
Fueled by dry shrubs and trees, the Santiago fire raged into the rugged Cleveland National Forest, burning up the slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains and threatening to cross into Riverside County.
Firefighters in eastern Orange County had so far kept the 25,000-acre fire from reaching homes in Trabuco and Live Oak canyons, the most endangered communities.
Meanwhile, Orange County authorities appealed to the public to help them catch an arsonist suspected of setting the fire Sunday evening near Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads. Officials were offering a $250,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction.
Arson is also suspected in a fire in Temecula, as well as in several smaller fires. Arson arrests were made in San Diego and San Bernardino counties.
In the mountains of San Bernardino County, favorable weather helped firefighters make progress against both the Grass Valley fire near Lake Arrowhead and the Slide fire near Running Springs and Arrowbear. By Thursday evening, the Slide fire was 15% contained, though about 10,000 homes continued to be threatened.
No additional homes were lost in either the Slide or Grass Valley fires, said Mike Dietrich, the fire chief of the San Bernardino National Forest. The Grass Valley fire did not grow, and was 70% contained.
As they made progress on the Grass Valley fire, commanders hoped to continue moving engines and crews to fight the Slide fire, said Randy Clauson, division chief for the San Bernardino National Forest. Efforts to contain that blaze were complicated by a shortage of hand crews, bulldozers and aircraft because of the competition from the fires in San Diego and Orange County. In the late afternoon, air operations officials were forced to ground several air tankers because of dense smoke.
“There’s still a lot of problems,” Clauson said.
With the danger receding from most populated areas, evacuees in many places returned home. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said an evacuation shelter at Qualcomm Stadium would close at noon today. Maurice Luque, a spokesman for San Diego Fire and Rescue, said there were no areas within San Diego that remained under evacuation orders.
People, Luque said, are “back in their homes -- the ones that have homes to go back into.”
Those who didn’t were left to ponder the future -- or act on it.
Supervisor Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, announced triumphantly that someone had requested the first permit to rebuild a burned-down house.
“This is great news,” he said. “We haven’t issued the permit yet, but we’re going to do it as quickly as possible.”
The supervisors have voted to lift the fees for rebuilding permits and to expedite what is often a slow, complex process.
Many of the newly homeless found their way to one of the six assistance centers being opened by the state to help fire victims rebuild their homes and lives.
“We’re trying to give people a road map from A to Z on how to get back home -- what’s important today, what can wait a year, what struggles and fights you’re going to have with your insurance company,” said Adam Richardson, who agreed to counsel people at a state service center in Rancho Bernardo, which Bush visited during his swing through the area.
Richardson, 40, came by his knowledge through hard experience, having lost his home in Scripps Ranch during the 2003 Cedar fire.
He was among a number of Cedar fire survivors who were enlisted as mentors at the outreach centers. Clients were paired with mentors who shared their insurance company.
LeAnn Sullivan, 46, was in line at the center at 6:30 a.m. She described herself as a homemaker, but said, “I’m out of work today. I have no home to make. It’s gone.”
She said she and her husband, Paul, 47, who is the chief financial officer for the YMCA of San Diego County, were awakened early Sunday morning at their home on Cabela Drive in Rancho Bernardo. Their dog, an Australian shepherd named Sydney, was barking. A neighbor had been banging on the door, but the Sullivans hadn’t heard that.
By the time they awoke, they had enough time only to grab the dog, their cat and a few items of clothing. They saw their home burning as they dashed out.
Standing in line, Sullivan mused, “We need to find out what to do next. We have no insurance papers, no titles, nothing. When you’re leaving, you get the weirdest things.”
She said she had little clothing with her.
“I love to shop, and I try to shop for clothes and I just stand there and cry,” she said. “You think, ‘Oh, that shirt looks cute with that skirt.’ And then you think, ‘Oh, that’s gone.’ ”
Sullivan said her husband went to Mexico with the local Rotary Club on Saturday to build homes for the poor. Three other families on that trip also lost their homes.
“We were helping the homeless Saturday and were homeless Monday,” she said.
She and her husband eventually left the service center with a white plastic bag full of handbooks and handouts on how to rebuild. They had also been given information on how to list the contents of their house, how to find a contractor and how to avoid getting ripped off by contractors or fake insurance companies.
Sullivan expressed confidence about avoiding those pitfalls, and was upbeat about the help she had received.
Wiping the running mascara from her eyes, she said: “We’re going to make it. That’s what I can tell you.”
Times staff writers Hector Becerra, Andrew Blankstein, Ari B. Bloomekatz, Rich Connell, Jennifer Delson, James Gerstenzang, Scott Glover, David Haldane, Christine Hanley, David Kelly, Jack Leonard, Rong-Gong Lin II, William Lobdell, Richard Marosi, David McKibben, Joe Mozingo, Patrick McGreevy, Charles Ornstein, Tony Perry, Jean-Paul Renaud, Michael Rothfeld and My-Thuan Tran contributed to this report.