Wildfires in Southern California have caused at least $1 billion in damage in San Diego County alone — and that figure is expected to rise, officials warned Wednesday.
In just four days, the blazes have burned 410,000 acres and forced at least 500,000 people to flee their homes — the largest evacuation in state history.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told NPR that 2,100 homes and buildings have been substantially damaged.
So far, the worst damage is in San Diego County. Ron Lane, San Diego County's director of emergency services, said the fires will be costly.
"Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster," he said.
President Bush set the wheels in motion for California to receive federal aid Wednesday, signing a major disaster declaration.
"Americans all across this land care deeply about them," the president said after a Cabinet meeting convened to coordinate federal relief efforts. "We're concerned about their safety. We're concerned about their property."
The fierce Santa Ana winds, sometimes gusting to 70 mph, have fanned the blazes for days, but forecasters now predict they will begin to die down.
Chertoff said the change in the weather will move the fire away from residential areas and allow firefighters to bring in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to help subdue the flames.
"That will give us an opportunity to get the upper hand," he said.
Crews are also anticipating the arrival of additional firefighters and equipment from other states.
Fire Crews Endangered
Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather has said that firefighters' lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.
"It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire," he said.
Twenty-one firefighters and at least 24 other people have been injured. One person was killed by the flames and the San Diego medical examiner's officer listed four other deaths as being connected to the blazes.
The state's top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability of firefighters and equipment.
Eight of the state's nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Grijalva said the fires, spread by wind that at times topped 100 mph, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.
Governor Praises Response
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism and praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.
"Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain because there's a bunch of nonsense," he said. "The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here — we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government — and they can't fly because of the wind situation."
More evacuation orders were issued Wednesday. Residents of the San Diego County communities of Fallbrook and Julian, an area devastated by a 2003 wildfire, were ordered out of their homes. Officials also were evacuating De Luz, an unincorporated community north of Camp Pendleton that was being threatened by a wildfire on the Marine base. The fire also closed Interstate 5 and the Metrolink commuter rail, snagging the morning commute.
However, residents were allowed to return to some areas of San Diego County, including Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Del Mar, Encinitas and Solana Beach.
"There are some hot spots and issues there, but we wouldn't be letting people go back if it weren't safe," county spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said.
The city of San Diego was assessing whether to allow people to return to their homes in Rancho Bernardo, one of the hardest-hit areas, Mayor Jerry Sanders said.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press