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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 November, 2003, 05:16 GMT
California fire crews gain ground
Firefighter relaxing
Firefighters have been given a breathing space
Cool and rainy weather has allowed firefighters to gain ground against the blazes that have left at least 20 people dead in southern California.

Hundreds of firefighters took advantage of the change to bulldoze firebreaks to protect some threatened communities.

But meteorologists are warning that the Santa Ana desert winds - which fanned the flames - could return next week.

Officials say it will take another week to contain the fires and at least three to bring them totally under control.

I live in the middle of this mess and it looks like a battlefield out here
Michael Davis, US

As the flames appeared to recede from most affected communities, firefighters were digging in to halt fires heading for the mountain resort town of Big Bear.

The area was evacuated as fires spread through nearby woods dried by drought and infested with insects.

Six fires were still burning in a broken arc across southern California - in the counties of Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino and San Diego - but were now mostly under control.

As the threat from the fires seemed to recede, evacuees were keen to return to their homes to prevent looting.

Click below to see a detailed map of the affected areas

In a rare show of solidarity, outgoing California governor Gray Davis joined his successor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday to open a new relief centre.

"The governor and I met some folks who have lost everything," Mr Davis said. "They have no home, their homes have gone up in smoke, the least we can do is put a cheque in their hands."

'Lots of threats'

With a drop in temperature, and a forecast of snow in higher areas, firefighters were hoping to go on the offensive at last.

"This is an opportunity," said Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Exline. "We can get in there in the next 48 hours to fight the fire on our own terms, without the forces of the weather."

Arnold Schwarzenegger at relief centre
The governor-elect has been giving comfort
Around 13,000 firefighters are tackling the blazes, which have so far destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched more than 267,000 hectares (660,000 acres) of land.

"This will be the most expensive natural disaster this state has ever incurred," Governor Davis told reporters.

The economic impact of the fires has been estimated at $2bn, though this is likely to increase once property values and re-building costs are added.

With insurance claims estimated to top $1bn, US President George W Bush has declared the affected areas a disaster zone, pledging the federal government will give all possible assistance.

At least two of the fires are believed to have been the result of arson and another is said to have been lit as a distress signal by a lost hunter.

The BBC's Daniela Relph
"The rebuilding of lives has begun"

Battling the inferno
30 Oct 03  |  Americas
In pictures: California blazes
30 Oct 03  |  Photo Gallery
California fires: Your reaction
27 Oct 03  |  Have Your Say
Eyewitness: 'You cannot breathe'
28 Oct 03  |  Americas
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28 Oct 03  |  Entertainment

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