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Death Toll From Calif. Wildfires at 22

November 4, 2003

BIG BEAR, Calif. (AP) _ The death toll from Southern California’s vast wildfires grew to 22 while exhausted firefighters were close to fully containing the largest and most deadly blazes.

Frigid temperatures that brought rain and snow to the mountains aided firefighters in recent days. Many firefighters were sent home Monday as remaining crews doused hotspots and watched for new ones.

All fires were expected to be surrounded by Tuesday, when President Bush was scheduled to tour San Diego County fire areas with Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Meanwhile, San Bernardino County authorities added two more suspected heart-attack fatalities from a 91,200 acre-fire there, raising the county’s toll to six.

The new deaths _ of a 54-year-old San Bernardino man on Saturday and a 67-year-old Cedar Pines man on Sunday _ were reported by authorities who are investigating arson as the cause of the blaze and could file murder charges if suspects are captured.

More than 27,000 people remained displaced from their homes, but that was well down from the 80,000 at the peak of the fires, said Carl DeWing, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

Sylvia Illman, forced to flee the community of Lake Arrowhead, said that after a week in a pop-up tent parked in a friend’s driveway, she found herself arguing with her husband and snapping needlessly at her two boys, ages 5 and 3.

``We can’t help it. The stress level is unbelievable,″ she said. ``I want to go home.″

Many evacuees from Big Bear began returning home on Sunday. But much of the Lake Arrowhead area remained off-limits.

More than 743,000 acres of brush and timber were burned and some 3,587 homes were destroyed by the fires.

The fire in San Bernardino County, the last of the blazes to threaten communities, was 93 percent contained as it smoldered in forest atop the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles.

Elsewhere, San Diego County’s 280,000-plus-acre Cedar Fire was at 99 percent containment, while the 56,700-acre Paradise Fire was at 77 percent; San Bernardino County’s Grand Prix Fire was at 97 percent after burning more than 59,000 acres; and the 64,000-acre Piru Fire in Ventura County was 85 percent surrounded.

Davis said Monday that, in consultation with Schwarzenegger, he had appointed a commission to review the firefighting effort and make recommendations to prevent future destruction from fires.

The commission will examine reducing ``barriers that prevent expeditious response of military resources,″ development of an interstate or regional mutual aid system, and updating local building and planning regulations for high fire-threat zones and brush clearance.

East of San Diego, Schwarzenegger toured neighborhoods devastated by the Cedar Fire and spoke to firefighters at a temporary base in El Cajon.

``It doesn’t make any sense that so many people have to suffer so much because of a disaster like that,″ he said.

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Associated Press Writers Ron Harris, Ken Ritter and Laura Wides contributed to this report.

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