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Full Containment of Calif. Fires Near

November 4, 2003

BIG BEAR, Calif. (AP) _ Exhausted firefighters were sent home Monday as remaining crews doused hotspots and watched for new ones _ the vast wildfires that ravaged parts of Southern California all but surrounded.

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 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.″

All fires were expected to be surrounded by Tuesday, if not by Monday evening, said Andrea Tuttle, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Cool, moist air smothered remnant flames after a front moved in off the Pacific on Halloween and brought rain to some areas and snow in the mountains. ``The weather continues to be healthy for us,″ Tuttle said.

The 91,000-acre Old Fire, the last of the blazes to threaten communities, was 83 percent contained as it smoldered in forests atop the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles.

Small plumes wafted up from charred areas as scattered fire engine crews sprayed smoky spots and utility crews restrung lines to restore power.

``This is definitely not the flaming front that occurred last week,″ said Ann Westling, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Big Bear.

The optimism was tempered as the death toll rose to 22, with San Bernardino County authorities on Monday reporting two fire-related fatalities. Both died of suspected heart attacks over the weekend.

President Bush was scheduled to tour devastated areas of San Diego County Tuesday with Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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

East of San Diego, Schwarzenegger toured fire-stricken neighborhoods and spoke to firefighters 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.

Also Monday, the body of the only firefighter who died battling the fires was flown home to Marin County. Steven Rucker, an 11-year veteran of the Novato Fire Protection District, died Wednesday.

Capt. David Jones cried as a white hearse carried Rucker’s body. ``Firefighters try to put on a tough skin and not let the soft side show,″ Jones said. ``You can try to hold back your tears but you can’t.″

The wildfires swept across more than 743,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,570 homes. About 16,000 firefighters were brought in last week to battle the flames; nearly half that number were on duty Monday.

Efforts were rapidly turning to preventing mudslides and flooding. ``With the weather now, the race is on to get that work,″ said CDF Deputy Chief Bill Schultz.

San Diego County’s 280,000-acre Cedar Fire was 99 percent contained while the 56,700-acre Paradise Fire was at 75 percent. San Bernardino County’s Grand Prix Fire was 97 percent contained after burning more than 59,000 acres, and the nearly 64,000-acre Piru Fire in Ventura County was 80 percent surrounded.

In the San Bernardino mountains, temperatures were just above freezing as clouds and fog hung low over mountaintop valleys from Big Bear west to the Lake Arrowhead area, where hundreds of homes burned last week.

Many evacuees from Big Bear began returning home Sunday. But much of the Lake Arrowhead area remained off-limits. Three men were charged Monday with looting evacuated homes in San Bernardino County; all pleaded innocent.

Some residents remained at evacuation centers; others were making do on their own.

Patrick McConnell, an auto parts store clerk from Lake Gregory, was living a nomadic life with his 12-year-old daughter _ with friends one night, at his mother’s for two, at his ex-wife’s for one _ before finding a $50-a-night motel room.

``It’s hitting the bank book,″ McConnell said. ``But I’m lucky, I guess. If I go a grand or two, it’s better than some people.″


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

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