Bush Makes California Visit; Wildfire Fatality Count Rises
President Bush toured Southern California on Thursday as investigators got down to the work of determining how one sunny fall day last weekend erupted into a 16-fire storm now in its fifth day.
Recovery crews, moving from house to house in towns where the fires have passed, found the bodies of two people in the shell of a home in Poway, northeast of San Diego. And in the early evening, San Diego officials said, Border Patrol agents found the burned bodies of four immigrants who may have been killed while crossing the border.
They were the first confirmed fatalities since Sunday, when a man was killed in Protrero, near the Mexican border.
Bush, joined by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, also a Republican, visited the charred remains of neighborhoods, met distraught residents and exhausted fire crews and viewed fires that continue to burn throughout the region. By Thursday, the fires had destroyed 1,800 homes, injured 57 people and burned a half million acres.
The president pointedly praised Schwarzenegger’s handling of the country’s biggest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina two years ago, making veiled comparisons to local relief efforts at that time in Louisiana.
“It makes a big difference when you have someone in the statehouse willing to take the lead,” Bush said at a news conference, a dig at the Louisiana governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat. He also assured California residents that “we’re not gonna forget you in Washington, D.C.”
With most of the fires no longer posing a significant threat, fire officials were stepping up efforts to determine how much of the blame for the devastation fell on nature and how much on a criminal element.
In Orange County, where the authorities have already determined a large fire north of Mission Viejo was intentionally set, investigators have begun to interview people about possible suspects, closed canyon roads on Thursday and sifted through the rubble in search of clues.
The fire there, which is still burning, has consumed 20,000 acres and nine houses. On Wednesday, FBI agents descended on Santiago Canyon Road near Irvine to gather evidence, which was sent to a lab to be analyzed.
“We desperately want to catch the person or persons that did this,” said Chip Prather, the Orange County Fire Authority Chief at a news conference in Irvine. The evidence at the scene, which Prather would not discuss further, suggested arson, he said.
A separate fire, to the east in Riverside County, has also been tagged by investigators as arson. At least two people, in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, have been arrested on suspicion of arson.
The massive scale and ferocity of the fires almost certainly stemmed from a trajectory familiar to fire fighters, fire investigation experts said.
Fires created through human error, lightning or a downed power line typically create large embers that can fly as far as a mile through the powerful Santa Ana winds, setting off new blazes. Early indications point to downed power lines as the culprit in a fire in Malibu and possibly two others.