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Rain Showers Ease Wildfire Conditions

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GARANCE BURKE | October 27, 2007 11:28 PM EST | AP

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LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. — Firefighters battled stubborn wildfires across Southern California on Saturday, but scattered showers brought a welcome improvement in conditions.

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 percent to just 25 percent. 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.

"It's very overcast right now, no wind. Low humidity, about 30 percent. They're talking about rain," said Audrey Hagen, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in San Diego.

Active fires burned in the Lake Arrowhead resort region of the towering San Bernardino Mountains 100 miles east of Los Angeles, and in rugged wilderness above isolated canyon communities of Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles. A big blaze 60 miles northeast of San Diego stopped its advance toward the mountain town of Julian.

One home burned Saturday morning in Arrowbear, east of Lake Arrowhead, after power was restored in the area and an electrical fire erupted in the residence, said Mike Huddleston, an investigation supervisor with the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

A wildfire was about a mile from thousands of homes in Arrowbear, Green Valley Lake and Running Springs. Rain began falling in the mountain range during the late afternoon.

"The fire is moving away from the residences, but with the wind anything can happen," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lisa Jones.

Forecasters said there would be some a weak flow of wind out of the north and northwest on Sunday and then a return to calm and drizzle.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a news conference that he would work to improve problems in the state's deployment of firefighting aircraft when major wildfires erupt. The Associated Press reported Thursday that nearly two dozen military helicopters stayed grounded for days after several wildfires broke out because state personnel who must be on board were not immediately available.

Two of the California National Guard's C-130 cargo planes also couldn't help because they've yet to be outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant, though that was promised four years ago.

"There are things that we could improve on and I think this is what we are going to do because a disaster like this ... in the end is a good vehicle, a motivator for everyone to come together," Schwarzenegger said. "I remember after Katrina, as sad as it is, but it takes sometimes a disaster like this to really wake everyone up and affect things."

In Southern California fire areas, about 4,400 people remained in 28 shelter sites, but others waited out the fires in makeshift encampments.

In Highland, at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, about 20 people were in their sixth day of living in a Wal-Mart parking lot, getting daily visits from sheriff's officials who reported their 17 homes were still intact.

"What are the chances of that? The hundreds of people staying at the shelters, I still don't think they have the comfort of knowing that kind of information," said Robert Newbourgh, 44.

Light rain also fell on the Rancho Bernardo section of San Diego, where more than 360 homes were lost. National Guard troops patrolled and postal trucks delivered mail to homes that were still standing.

"Everybody is really happy for me and I'm sad for them," said Helena Hyman, a retired school administrator whose cul-de-sac home survived with five ruined homes on each side. She credited her good fortune to replacing wood shingles with a fiberglass roof and chopping down a eucalyptus tree within the last five years.

Bruce Heinemann, 48, spoke with an insurance adjuster as friends sifted through his ruined home, looking for his wife's wedding ring, photos and other mementos.

Meanwhile, his daughter was at a newly rented home making lists of what they lost, and his wife was visiting department stores to get prices for the insurers.

"The kind of mode you're in is, what do you do today? What do you do tomorrow? Just make a list and get it done," he said.

The Heinemanns had about 10 minutes to evacuate Monday morning, just enough time to escape with some clothes and three of their four cars.

Heinemann, a self-employed loan officer, said it makes financial sense to rebuild, but they may never return to live on the street where the fire left hopscotch destruction _ some of the Spanish-style, tile-roofed homes left standing, while others were turned to ash, leaving burned-out cars, chimneys and remnants of refrigerators and washing machines.

"It sounds terrible, but I'm glad it's gone. How would you like to sit in your house when one third of your neighbors are gone?" he said.

Elsewhere in the community, mortgage broker Mike Bartholemew, 37, removed rotten food from his refrigerator as he waited for cleaners to vacuum soot from inside his home, which survived the flames.

Bartholemew said returning home stirred memories of the frightening experience as flames advanced toward his home at 4 a.m. Monday. He said he opened his front door to "a bellowing furnace, smoke and embers" as a palm tree across the street burned and neighbors screamed.

Bartholemew said his wife and two children fled in an SUV and he left in another car, but he fell unconscious for unknown reasons and crashed into a utility box. He said a police officer rescued him.

"I have never in my life been that scared. I kept repeating to myself, 'Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic.' The fact that no one died in this neighborhood is a miracle," he said.

Bartholemew said it was eerie to be surrounded by ruined homes but he was anxious to come back home as soon as electricity was restored.

"I don't know where I would move in San Diego with these dry Santa Ana conditions we get," he said. "I could move to Indiana, but they have tornadoes and floods. Everywhere you go in the country you get something. Here we have earthquakes and fires."

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Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Aaron C. Davis in Orange, Peter Prengaman and Raquel Maria Dillon, and Steve Lawrence in Sacramento contributed to this report.