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Fog, Drizzle Aid California Firefighters

October 31, 2003

BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. (AP) _ Fog and drizzle Thursday came to the rescue of firefighters laboring to save resort towns in Southern California from the raging wildfires that have killed at least 20 people.

``It is helping, but it is a long way from putting any fires out,″ said Ray Snodgrass, chief deputy director of the California Forestry Department. ``It’s the respite we were hoping for.″

The weather helped firefighters make progress on the two fires that accounted for about 90 percent of the more than 2,600 homes lost, and all but two of the deaths: one in the mountains northeast of San Diego, the other in mountain and foothill areas in and near San Bernardino.

The weather change also brought gusting winds, but they were pushing the latter fire, covering nearly 50,000 acres, away from populated areas, San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty said.

``It’s a low fire,″ Brierty said. ``It’s kind of skunking around. As long as the current wind pattern holds, it will reduce the danger.″

In San Diego County, moist air helped firefighters battling the largest fire in state history, a 272,000-acre blaze near the historic mining town of Julian. Wind gusting to 40 mph remained a concern, even as firefighters began shifting their focus to hot spots in outlying areas.

The fire ``is finally showing some sign of winding down,″ San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said. Authorities hoped they could soon begin allowing more residents to return to check on their homes.

Devastating fires have burned for more than a week throughout Southern California, destroying more than 2,600 homes and blackening about 730,000 acres. Seven fires were still burning in four counties.

A blaze of more than 100,000 acres on the line between Ventura and Los Angeles counties was winding down, with cooler weather and high humidity helping firefighters knock down flames that had come within a few feet of homes.

On Wednesday, wind-driven flames burned about 350 homes in Cedar Glen in the San Bernardino Mountains. But John Lucas was able to save three houses on his property, including one where his wife and her brothers were born.

Lucas, 38, said he built a $60,000 fire system, consisting of two 5,500-gallon water tanks and a network of hoses, that kept the buildings and the grounds wet.

``It wasn’t luck. My family and I expended a lot of preparation just for this scenario,″ said the former federal Forest Service firefighter.

Others homes left relatively unscathed Thursday were in Sunset Pointe and Stevenson Ranch outside Santa Clarita, despite flames coming within feet of new $400,000 dwellings.

``I’m feeling numb. I’m feeling like I dreamed this,″ said Marina Deeb, wearing a face mask as she talked with friends in her driveway. ``I’m just very thankful to have my home, my husband and my children safe.″

Homeowners in Big Bear and other evacuated areas faced another concern Thursday _ looting. Sheriff’s deputies arrested four people, two of them in the act, said Sgt. Brooke Wagner of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

Kim Robinson, 46, who lives near San Bernardino, said she saw strangers at some of the evacuated homes. ``Homeless people came and tried to make homes in some of the empty places,″ she said. ``I guess they thought they’d stay.″

In San Diego County, where the state’s largest fire killed a firefighter on Wednesday, many of his comrades wore black bands on their badges. Steve Rucker, 38, died while battling a blaze that has burned more than 270,000 acres and some 1,500 homes. He was the first firefighter to die in this outbreak of fires.

``We have a somber mood and we need to be somber, but it’s time to move ahead,″ incident commander John Hawkins told the firefighters. ``Get your chin up and move out.″

In Escondido, hundreds of mourners gathered for a memorial service for Ashleigh Roach, a 16-year-old who died Sunday while trying to escape from flames that destroyed her family’s home. Her 20-year-old sister, Allyson, was severely burned and remained hospitalized in critical condition.

Nearly 13,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.

The state was getting firefighting help from British Columbia. The western Canadian province’s Forests Ministry said it could have two air tankers in the state within 24 hours, with eight more tankers, 65 fire pumps and nearly 200 firefighters and specialists to follow.

The state is spending an estimated $9 million a day fighting the wildfires. The total cost of fighting the blazes could reach $200 million, and the toll on the California economy has been put at $2 billion.

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Associated Press Writers Pauline Arrillaga, Martha Mendoza, Ken Ritter and Andrew Bridges contributed to this story.