Easing winds offered California firefighters some respite yesterday as they battled to contain blazes that have killed at least three people and caused more than US$1 billion in property damage.
Some 1,700 buildings have been destroyed in the 18 wildfires that have erupted since Sunday, forcing about half a million people to flee their homes and scorching 172,000 hectares of tinder-dry countryside stretching from celebrity-studded Malibu to beyond the Mexican border.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said three people were killed and 40 injured in the fires, the worst to hit California since devastating 2003 blazes which claimed 22 lives.
Police in San Bernardino shot and killed a suspected arsonist after chasing him out of dry scrub, and Hesperia police arrested a man on suspicion of arson, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday.
The fast-spreading infernos were fueled by powerful desert winds gusting across the region towards the ocean. The winds began to die down on Wednesday, and increased coastal humidity early yesterday enabled firefighters to make great strides in containing three of the five biggest blazes.
So far 1,664 structures, including 1,436 homes, have been destroyed while a further 25,000 buildings remain threatened, Schwarzenegger said.
"The wind stopped blowing and that made our lives a lot easier," said a Los Angeles County Fire Department official tackling the Buckweed fire, which charred 15,000 hectares before it was contained late on Wednesday.
The two biggest California fires, covering around 108,000 hectares of San Diego County, were both only 10 percent contained.
US President George W. Bush, scheduled to tour the fire-ravaged area yesterday, declared California a disaster zone on Wednesday.
Some 8,900 firefighters -- including 2,600 prison inmates trained to tackle fires -- are battling the flames supported by 90 firefighting aircraft, including a DC-10, 25 air tankers and 40 helicopters.
Schwarzenegger paid tribute to the weary firefighters.
"They are really extraordinary, they are working 24 hours a day, around-the-clock. In fact many of them have been working 36 or 48 hours without stopping," he said.
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