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IN THE NEWS - November 1, 2003: Southern California Wildfires - 2003-10-31

This is Steve Ember with In the News, from VOA Special English.

Thousands of firefighters from around the United States are battling the wildfires in Southern California. The fires are spread from the Mexican border north more than two-hundred kilometers to Los Angeles, and beyond. Around three-hundred-thousand hectares have burned. Officials say the fires are the most destructive in state history.

The fires began last week. At least twenty people have been killed. More than two-thousand homes have been destroyed. Officials say crews could find more bodies when they inspect the ruins. More than one-hundred-thousand people have had to leave their homes.

Winds have eased during the past few days. And officials expect cooler temperatures and rain. Rain would also help clear the air of smoke and ash.

Hot, dry winds have spread the flames. These winds are called Santa Anas. They develop this time of year in the Santa Ana Canyon.

Officials had hoped that cooler winds from the Pacific Ocean would calm the fires. But the wind changes moved some fires into areas that crews thought they had under control.

More than ten fires are burning in five counties. The two worst fires are in the San Bernardino mountains east of Los Angeles and in the mountains of San Diego County.

What is known as the Cedar Fire in San Diego is the largest fire in Southern California. Officials say the Cedar Fire has burned more than one-hundred-thousand hectares of San Diego County. At least fourteen people have been killed. The first death of firefighter happened Wednesday, near the historic mountain town of Julian. To the south, in the town of Cuyamaca, flames left only a fire station and city hall still standing.

Crews have been working hard to keep the Cedar Fire from joining with another large fire burning in San Diego County.

Officials say a hunter who got lost and fired a signal flare into the sky started the Cedar Fire in San Diego. But officials believe all of the fires in San Bernardino County were set. Police were looking for a man seen leaving the area where the fire first began.

In San Bernardino, crews have been working to protect popular tourist towns like Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead from what they call the Old Fire. Officials have been worried for days that changing winds would blow flames into huge pine trees in the San Bernardino National Forest. These trees have already been damaged by insects and dry weather. Damaged and dead trees have also fueled other fires.

Outgoing Governor Gray Davis has estimated the cost of the fires at more than two-thousand-million dollars. He declared the five counties a disaster area to speed federal aid. The next governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was in Washington this week and also appealed for aid. He takes office next month.

In the News, from VOA Special English, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.