Adam Castillo and other members of the Orange County Fire Authority Strike Team prepare to move out to cut fire breaks in Live Oak Canyon in eastern Orange County, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007. A merciful easing of the winds fueling Southern California's sprawling wildfires finally gave fire crews a chance to fight back against some blazes Wednesday, and weary residents could take solace in an overriding sign of hope: Just one person has died from the flames. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
(CBS/AP) A massive aerial assault and a break in harsh winds helped firefighters make their first major progress against Southern California's firestorm, raising evacuees' hopes of returning home for good. But flames were still drawing perilously toward thousands of homes.
The hot, dry Santa Ana winds that have whipped the blazes into a destructive, indiscriminate fury since the weekend were expected to all but disappear Thursday.
"That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts," National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.
The record high temperatures of recent days began succumbing to cooling sea breezes, and two fires that burned 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County were fully contained.
President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, was scheduled to arrive in California Thursday and to take an aerial tour of the burn areas, accompanied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"It's a sad situation out there in Southern California," Mr. Bush said outside the White House before leaving for California. "I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts. They just need to know a lot of folks care about them."
Gov. Schwarzenegger was effusive in his praise those who've worked tirelessly to fight the blazes. "There are some firefighters that I've talked to they worked 36 hours and they're still pumped up and wanting to do more," he told CBS' The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.
Losses total at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and include a third of the state's avocado crop. The losses are half as high as those in Southern California's 2003 fires, but are certain to rise.
So far, at least 15 fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes since they began late Saturday.
The burn area of nearly 460,000 acres - about 719 square miles - stretches in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The more hopeful news on the fire lines came a day after residents in some hard-hit San Diego County neighborhoods were allowed back to their streets, many lined with the wreckage of melted cars.
In upscale Rancho Bernardo, house after house had been reduced to a smoldering heap. Cheryl Monticello, 38 and eight months pregnant, knew what she would find when she came back Wednesday because a city official warned her that the house was lost. But she had to see it for herself.
"You really need to see it to know for sure," Monticello said.
Only the white brick chimney and her daughter's backyard slide had survived the inferno that bore down on her neighborhood Monday morning.
Running Springs resident Ricky Garcia returned to his house in the San Bernardino Mountains on Wednesday, panicked that his street had been wiped out and his cats, Jeff and Viper, were lost.
But his house, a new home built on a cleared lot, was unscathed, unlike those of his neighbors. Hiding underneath a porch and mewing loudly was Jeff, his long, black hair gray with ash. Viper, however, was nowhere in sight.
"I'm excited to see my cat and my house, but absolutely devastated for my neighbors," he said, after loading Jeff into a carrier and preparing to evacuate again. "I've been through fires before, but this one hit a lot closer to home."
Meanwhile, homeowners fear that insurance companies will raise rates or even cancel policies in the wake of the fires.
State officials and consumer advocates say that's not likely, but the scope of the fires and past tussles with insurers make many Californians skeptical.
As nature's blitzkrieg starts to recede, many of the other refugees will be allowed back to their neighborhoods. More than 500,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County alone, part of the largest mass evacuation in California history.
Even with the slackening winds, the county remains a tinderbox. Firefighters cut fire lines around the major blazes in San Diego County, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained. More than 8,500 homes were still threatened.
Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003.
Losses linked to the fires could climb even higher throughout Southern California if winter rainstorms send mud cascading down fire-ravaged hillsides into neighborhoods, said Kevin Klowden, managing economist for the Milken Institute.
"Vegetation is going to have been basically wiped out on a number of hillsides," he said.
To the northeast, in the San Bernardino County mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said 6,000 homes remained in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.
Both fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters that dumped more than 30 loads of water.
In the middle of that arc, the Santiago Fire in Orange County had burned nearly 20,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. Only 50 percent contained, it is a suspected arson fire.
One arson suspect has been killed, another is in custody, and others are being sought, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.
Police have told CBS News that at least three deliberate ignition spots were located in the Santiago Canyon blaze that did $10 million in damage by itself.
"We can't confirm any of the fires in the county have been arson related. Everything is under investigation," fire chief Brian Estes told CBS News Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm.
Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to help investigate. Authorities said a smaller, more recent fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.
Despite the widespread destruction, the fires have directly claimed just one life, 52-year-old Thomas Varshock of Tecate. The San Diego medical examiner's office listed five other deaths as connected to the blazes because all who died were evacuees.
The number of victims could rise as authorities return to neighborhoods where homes burned. In 2003, 22 people lost their lives in a series of fires that lasted nearly two weeks.
Terry Dooley, who was ordered out of his San Bernardino home with his wife and three sons Monday, said authorities learned important lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 fires.
Unlike many of the poor neighborhoods flooded by Hurricane Katrina, some of California's hardest-hit areas were filled with upscale homes, with easy access and wide streets. Authorities used reverse 911 calls to warn residents to get out.
"They learned how to get things done more quickly," Dooley said as he waited at a roadblock to return home to San Diego's Rancho Bernardo area.
© MMVII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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