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Wind change gives crews fighting chance

Merced area firefighters and highway patrolmen continue to do battle with unprecedented fires that have blackened nearly 700 square miles in five Southern California counties and destroyed 1,500 homes. More than half a million people have been evacuated as wind-whipped blazes continue to menace a wide area.

Ebbing winds are providing hope the four-day fiery nightmare can finally be quelled.

Property damage has reached at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California. The president was scheduled to visit the region today.

Twenty-two firefighters from three Merced area crews remain part of a massive fighting force nearly rendered helpless by fierce winds fanning flames in tinder-dry vegetation. Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten doesn't expect any of Merced's firefighters to return home before the weekend.

"They (firefighters) are right in the thick of things. It's absolutely unreal. There still are several days to go," Mitten said. Seven fires have been contained but 15 others show little sign of dying out like the embers in a fireplace would do.

Scott Newman, division chief with the Merced County Fire Department, said nine county firefighters are part of Merced's contingent. He said there have been no reports of anyone hurt from this area or even near-miss circumstances.

One local engine crew is working the Canyon Fire in the Malibu area, trying to protect homes from advancing flames. Newman said subsiding winds have slowed down the rapid advance of some fires.

On Wednesday, winds dropped to 21 to 36 mph, considerably less than the fierce gusts of up to 100 mph that whipped fire zones earlier in the week. Improving weather allowed for a greater aerial assault on the flames and helped firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes.

Despite the progress, none of the six major blazes in San Diego County was more than 15 percent contained, and those fires threatened more than 8,500 houses. The top priority was a fire in San Bernardino County that threatened 6,000 homes and continued to rage out of control.

Mitten said local firefighters defended a San Diego County school from fire Monday night, in the face of 60 mph winds. A couple of school buildings were lost to the fire but eight or nine structures, the bulk of the campus, were spared from damage.

One Merced-based strike team is deployed at the Harris fire near the Mexican border, protecting threatened homes. Another local crew is working at the Witch fire immediately north and the third group is assigned to the Santiago fire in Orange County, Mitten said.

Mitten said fire commanders are moving resources around and Merced teams are being sent where they are needed the most. Newman said Merced firefighters are being used to protect homes from the fires.

Deputy Paul Barile, Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman, said no local officers have been sent south yet although a mutual aid request has been made in Region 5, which includes Merced, Mariposa, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

Barile said local officers are on standby and four to six officers from this area could be sent to San Diego areas, to help maintain order.

Only one death has been reported as due to the fire, contrasting with 22 dead from a 2003 fire of similar magnitude. And while the final toll has yet to be tallied from this week's fires, officials were crediting an automated, reverse 911 calling system that prompted the orderly evacuation of more than half a million people -- 10 times the number evacuated four years ago.

Officer Shane Ferriera, spokesman for the Merced Area California Highway Patrol office, said seven officers and one sergeant from Merced have been on patrol in Canyon Country, Santa Clarita, Castaic and Lake Hughes areas. They were headed back to Bakersfield Wednesday night and could be reassigned elsewhere in Southern California.

Helicopters and air tankers dropped 30 to 35 loads of water on two fires that have burned hundreds of homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Lake Arrowhead.

"They're taking it down considerably," said Dennis Bouslaugh of the U.S. Forest Service.

Authorities said they had largely contained many of the fires north of San Diego, and all five fires in Los Angeles County were about 50 percent contained or more.

The death toll from the most recent blazes may rise as fires continue to burn and authorities return to neighborhoods where homes turned to piles of ash, but displaced homeowners and authorities were relieved that early reports were so low.

The San Diego County medical examiner officially listed six deaths connected to the blazes, but he included five who died during the evacuation who were not directly killed by the fire. In 2003, all but a handful of the 22 dead succumbed to the flames.

Terry Dooley, who was ordered out of his home with his wife and three sons Monday, said authorities learned important lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 California fires that wiped out 3,640 homes and blackened 750,000 acres during a two-week period.

"They learned how to get things done more quickly," Dooley said as he waited at a roadblock Wednesday to return home to San Diego's upscale, densely populated Rancho Bernardo area.