Death toll rises in California wildfires

Earlier Story: Evacuations ordered The death toll from wildfires that have driven a million Californians from their homes rose to six today as President Bush signed a major "disaster declaration" to start funneling federal funds to the scorched area. "I want the people of Southern California to know that Americans all across this land care deeply about them," Bush said. "They can rest assured that the federal government will do everything we can to help put out these fires." By signing the directive, Bush turned on the spigot that will send aid to hardest hit areas - San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. The aid package includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and various programs to help people and business owners recover. Also, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said homeowners can get up to $28,800 in individual assistance for structures or properties that weren't covered by insurance. Bush, who was roundly criticized for the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, will fly to San Diego tomorrow to "make sure that our efforts are coordinated." Now in their fourth day, the wind-whipped fires have destroyed 2,170 homes, scorched an area more than twice the size of New York City - and sparked largest evacuation in state history. At least 1,200 of the damaged homes were in San Diego County, a part of the country where the median housing price is $475,000. "Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster," said Ron Lane, San Diego County's director of emergency services. Stoked by 70 mph Santa Ana winds and furnace-like temperatures approaching 100 degrees, the fires broke out Sunday on the Mexican border and hopscotched as far north as Burbank, outside Los Angeles. Enormous blazes that could be seen from space erupted seemingly out of nowhere, burning down Malibu mansions, Continue Reading

Wildfire forces evacuations in L.A.

Firefighters made progress early Wednesday against a wildfire blazing over Dante's View in the brush-covered hills behind the city's iconic Griffith Observatory. Animals at the nearby Los Angeles Zoo were moved indoors, and dozens of homes were evacuated. The 600-acre blaze in sprawling Griffith Park was just one firefighters were battling across the nation. A wildfire in northern Minnesota has already destroyed 40 homes and buildings, and brush fires in Georgia and northern Florida have charred more than 200 square miles. Overnight, five helicopters flew dangerous water-dropping missions in Los Angeles, helping fire crews get the blaze about 40 percent contained. Griffith Park is a mix of wilderness, cultural sites, horse and hiking trails and recreational facilities set on more than 4,000 acres in the hills between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Visitors to its Greek Theatre, Observatory and the Museum of the American West were told to leave. At the Autry National Center, which includes a museum of Western artifacts, staff threw tarps over the collections to protect them in case the sprinkler system went off, said Faith Raiguel, chief operating officer. The flames forced officials to put most of the Los Angeles Zoo's 1,200 animals inside holding quarters. "So far the animals are faring fine," said Jason Jacobs, director of marketing and public relations for the zoo. "I haven't heard any reports of anything going wrong." About 35 people who live near the park, out of an estimated 300 evacuated from nearby homes, checked in to an evacuation center at a high school. "I was just able to get a few things," said Ed Stephan, 83, who helped his wife into their car as ashes fell from the sky. "We're not too worried but want to get out of here and observe the law." Authorities hoped residents would be able to return to their homes by evening. The fire destroyed Dante's View, a trailside terraced garden on Mount Hollywood, said City Councilman Continue Reading

Rain douses bulk of South Jersey wildfire

LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Rain reduced a 22-square-mile wildfire near a bombingrange to mostly smoldering brush Thursday, but fire officials warned that the flames could rekindleif the wind picks up. Virtually no smoke was visible Thursday morning over blackened scrub pines that only a dayearlier were consumed by a 100-foot-high wall of flames. The challenge now was to consolidate gainsthat the rain, and a massive firefighting effort, had made. "A fire this big, we're not going to be able to put out," said Bert Plante, a division firewarden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. "What we want to do today is push everything deep enough in so that if anything happens, it won'tmatter," Plante said. Firefighters were using heavy equipment, including bulldozers, to plow through smoldering areasand extinguish hot spots, as well as to clear fire lines through smoldering areas. The idea was to further isolate the blaze should winds pick up and fan the flames again. One problem area was a swampy bog area where vegetation was still burning; it was difficult forfire crews to get near the area due to the terrain. The fire remained 70 percent contained in a triangular area bordered by two county roads and theGarden State Parkway, one of the state's most heavily used toll roads. The fire, which began Tuesday afternoon on a military bombing range in the southern New JerseyPine Barrens region, had charred some 14,000 acres by 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. That's when a line ofthunderstorms crossed the area, dumping a half-inch of rain on the fire zone over the next twohours. Authorities said the blaze was caused by a National Guard F-16 jet that dropped a flare during atraining exercise over the tinder-dry area. The military has promised to reimburse those who losthomes or property in the fire if federal investigations pinpoint the jet as the cause of the blaze. About 500 people who had been evacuated from their homes remained in Continue Reading

Campgrounds evacuated in California wildfire

FAWNSKIN, Calif. - A wind-driven wildfire burned at least 200 acres of brush and timber in the San Bernardino National Forest on Friday, forcing the evacuation of several campgrounds.The fire was reported in the early afternoon and was burning away from mountaintop communities, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Melody Lardner. It's burning out of control, authorities said.Winds of nearly 30 mph fanned the flames, Lardner said.Fire officials evacuated the Camp Whittle, Hannah Flats, Big Pine Flats and Ironwood Group campgrounds as a precaution, said Forest Service spokeswoman Norma Bailey.A fire that has charred 2,170 acres in a remote, mountainous area east of San Diego was 50% contained Friday, said Audrey Hagen, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman.The fire was started by an illegal campfire Wednesday afternoon and spread rapidly.  Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

Fast-moving wildfire in California

MEYERS, Calif. - A growing army of firefighters launched an aggressive attack Monday to corral a forest fire that had destroyed at least 220 homes in less than a day and forced about 1,000 people to flee neighborhoods near the southern edge of Lake Tahoe. The fire, believed to be caused by human activity, had charred nearly 2,500 acres - nearly 4 square miles - since it started Sunday afternoon. No injuries were reported. It was less than 10 percent contained Monday morning, said Lt. Kevin House of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department. "This is far and above the biggest disaster that has happened in this community, I don't know, probably in forever," House told reporters in an early morning briefing. Flames came within a quarter mile of the 1,500-student South Tahoe High School during the night, and dozens of firefighters surrounded the school. A layer of black ash floating on the lake lapped at boat docks along the shore. Wind slowed to about 12 mph during the night, after gusting as high as 35 mph late Sunday, and temperatures dipped into the 30s, aiding firefighters' efforts to corral the flames in the heavily wooded, parched terrain. However, the fire spread northward, enveloping hundreds of acres of unpopulated mountainside, and fire officials warned that afternoon wind could turn the flames toward the east and threaten hundreds more homes. The number of firefighters battling the blaze was nearly doubled Monday to more than 700. However, air tankers and helicopters were grounded by dense smoke that cut visibility. Fire officials said they have two days to get the fire under control because high wind and low humidity are forecast for Wednesday. "We have a window right now where we're really trying to aggressively attack this fire," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Sacramento. The National Weather Service issued a dense smoke advisory warning people from South Lake Tahoe to Continue Reading

Weather helps California firefighters make gains vs. wildfires

See the latest photo gallery of the California wildfires and their aftermath.Firefighters battled stubborn wildfires across Southern California Saturday, but scattered showers brought a welcome improvement in conditions that had fanned the flames.Tropical moisture flowing from the south replaced the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that roared in a week earlier and spread fires over more than a half-million acres, destroying more than 2,300 structures, including 1,700 homes. The number of deaths directly attributed to the fires officially rose to seven. Officials confirmed that the flames killed four suspected illegal immigrants whose charred bodies were found near the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday, said Jose Alvarez, a public information officer for San Diego County emergency services. Identification of the victims was continuing. Although more than a dozen blazes were surrounded, containment of nine other blazes ranged from 97% to just 25%. More than 21,000 structures were considered threatened, and more than 15,000 firefighters were on the lines, the state Office of Emergency Services said. The favorable weather may be short-lived, however."We're due for a change and the weather forecast is going to become warmer and drier," said Chris Caswell with the Orange County Fire Authority. "We're still cautiously optimistic."Some 4,400 people remained in shelters throughout Southern California. Others stayed in makeshift encampments. About 20 people are in their sixth day of living in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Highland, at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, relying on daily updates from sheriff's officials on the condition of their homes.Addressing controversy over state rules that caused delay in getting military aircraft into use against the fires, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Saturday said it sometimes takes disaster "to really wake everyone up.""There are things that we could improve on and I think this is what we are going to do because disaster like this in the Continue Reading

California wildfires nothing like Hurricane Katrina

SAN DIEGO - Thea Jones and I chatted outside Qualcomm Stadium next to a tent she had been calling home since Monday, when intense flames forced her from her house in Del Mar. We spoke about the conditions at the arena, which had become a relief center for 10,000 people fleeing the wildfires that have ravaged thousands of acres and devoured 2,000 homes in its path. I mentioned I had been in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and witnessed the horrid conditions at the Louisiana Superdome, where evacuees lived in squalor as they waited too long for help. Jones, 50, scoffed. "There's no comparison," she said. "Those people went through hell and the government didn't respond. Overall, we are totally blessed." She was right. The Superdome was dark and rotting the day after Katrina hit in 2005. Tens of thousands of people were stuck without food and water. The stadium's bathrooms overflowed with human waste. Authorities and relief workers were hard to come by and people - exhausted from escaping the hurricane's merciless winds and rain - were left to fend for themselves. At Qualcomm, there was no hunger or despair. The atmosphere was almost festival-like. Jugglers entertained and a band and comedians performed. Volunteers set up massage tables and evacuees were offered acupuncture and suntan lotion. There were crises counselors and yoga lessons. Verizon offered free phone calls and insurance companies were on hand. A sign advertised "Kosher Food at Gate D." San Diego police maintained a 24-hour presence and corporations and aid groups provided cots and blankets. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency was helpful. "We're here to make sure people impacted by the fires are taken care of," said FEMA spokesman Ken Higginbotham. "Everybody learned from Katrina," said another FEMA official. "That was an embarrassment." At Qualcomm, there also was a surplus of food and drink. "We have more than we need," said Tracy Continue Reading

Bush surveys wildfire devastation in Southern California

President Bush got a bird's eye look at the devastation wrought by wildfires this afternoon as he took an aerial tour of scorched Southern California. "I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts," Bush said before lifting off. "They just need to know a lot of folks care about them." Bush, who arrived aboard Air Force One at Marine Corps Air Station-Miramar about 12:30 p.m., could be seen rolling up his shirt sleeves before joining Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and embarking on a chopper tour over a devastated area that's twice the size of New York City. "We have some incredibly brave citizens who are risking their lives to protect people and property in California and we owe a great debt of gratitude to our nation's firefighters," Bush said. Bush spoke after receiving a progress report from firefighters, who have been able to contain about half of most stubborn blazes that have bedeviled them since Sunday. They were aided by lowering temperatures and a weakening of the strong Santa Ana winds that had stoked fires from the Mexican border all the way north to Malibu. "That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts," National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said. meteorologist Ken Clark warned, however, that firefighters will have to work fast because those same winds could strengthen by this weekend. Meanwhile, authorities announced the discovery of two burned bodies in a gutted house north of San Diego - and warned that the death toll could rise as investigators sift through the ashes of still smoldering neighborhoods. At least six deaths have been linked to the wildfires. The FBI has launched arson investigations into some of the most serious fires that have destroyed more than 1,500 homes and done more than $1 billion in damage. Police said cops shot and killed a man who fled Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire in San Bernardino. Continue Reading

Prisoners who risk their lives during Calif. wildfires shouldn’t be shut out of profession

As some of the deadliest wildfires in California’s history scorched much of the state's northern territory last month, the nation was confronted with photos, videos and stories of devastation. Those of us in Northern California breathed in the smoke.  While most Americans praise the bravery of the incredible firefighters on the front lines, they likely don't know that up to 35% of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's employees are state prisoners, and they are risking their lives and well being for $1 an hour.When they aren't fighting fires they make as little as $2 a day.  RE-ENTRY: Is America failing its prisoners? POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media Not only is it shocking that the men and women in our state prisons are paid pittance to do lifesaving work, even more alarming is that these same men and women are largely prevented from becoming firefighters, emergency medical technicians or any other emergency services professional after they are released.Inside prison, fitness tests and adherence to rules can garner an inmate under minimum security a spot on a fire team. On the outside, almost every single California county requires its firefighters to possess an EMT certification and pass a background check. California's EMT certifying board restricts nearly any applicant with a criminal record from becoming certified.The board disregards the intensive training and frontline experience that previously-incarcerated individuals, who are trained to fight fires, possess. The fact that these individuals put their lives on the line for their crew members and their community seems to have no influence on the EMT board.  In the extremely rare circumstances when a previously-incarcerated person trained as a firefighter can find a job, options for advancement are severely limited. Continue Reading

5 charged in scheme to defraud Dolly Parton’s wildfire relief fund

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Five people have been charged in an elaborate scheme to defraud a fund set up by singer Dolly Parton to aid Gatlinburg wildfire victims.Parton, a Sevier County native, established the Dollywood Foundation's My People Fund soon after last year's wildfires, which claimed 14 lives and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.The scammers made off with roughly $12,000 before the alleged plot was unmasked, records show."It's unfortunate but when something good happens, there's always a handful who want to exploit things," said David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation. "They went through extremely elaborate means." More: Gatlinburg: Firefighters' logs reveal desperate tug-of-war with flames More: Dolly Parton pledges additional $3 million to Tennessee fire victims Debra Kay Catlett, her son, Chad Alan Chambers, and three associates — Rocco Boscalia, Ammie Lyons and Esther Pridemore — are charged in a sealed presentment handed up by a Sevier County grand jury earlier this year with a conspiracy to defraud the My People Fund.Chambers is alleged in the indictments to be the chief architect of the scam, although it was his mother's database of rental properties that made it possible, according to records reviewed by USA TODAY Network-Tennessee.Those records show Catlett had worked as a photographer for real estate publications in Sevier County and as a result had a database of rental cabins complete with addresses and owners' names.Using that database, the alleged scammers identified cabins that had burned and, using property tax records, drew up fake leases and forged the owners' signatures.The scammers then allegedly used the forged leases to obtain temporary driver's licenses with those corresponding addresses via a service the Tennessee Department of Safety had established to help wildfire victims whose licenses had been lost in the fires.The indictments allege the scammers presented the Continue Reading