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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 October 2007, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Fire winds ease over California
Charred vehicles on a smouldering hillside 22 0ctober 2007 in Malibu, California.
Estimated fire damage stands at more than $1bn.

Weather forecasts have raised hopes of some respite from the wildfires raging out of control across southern California for the last four days.

Forecasters say the Santa Ana winds, which fuelled the spread of the flames and had reached hurricane strength, are just starting to die out.

But correspondents say firefighters still face a huge task in controlling the fires, as no rain is expected.

President George W Bush is flying to the area to see the damage for himself.

Speaking before he left, he assured California residents that the federal government would provide the resources, manpower and equipment needed to fight the fires.

"It's a sad situation out there in Southern California," he said.

"I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts, and they just need to know a lot of folks care about them."

TACKLING THE FLAMES
Firefighters battle a blaze in California (24/10/07)
8,000 firefighters - including a number of prison teams
1,500 national guards
50 helicopters
55 firefighting planes
Source: Office of Emergency Services

Mr Bush has declared seven counties in the state as a major disaster area.

About one million people have had to leave their homes, officials say.

Among the worst affected areas is around San Diego, where evacuation centres are struggling to provide shelter for more than 300,000 people.

San Diego police said on Thursday that two bodies had been found in the burned ruins of a house in Poway.

One death directly linked to the fires was reported on Sunday and authorities say there have been several other deaths during the evacuations.

The fires have destroyed more than 1,600 homes and the material damage is estimated to have risen to more than $1bn.

Police say at least one of the larger fires may have been started deliberately.

Mixed picture

One arson suspect was shot dead by police after a pursuit and another was arrested, police said, although neither man has been connected with any major fire.

The fires have ravaged at least 674 sq miles (1,745 sq km) of land from Santa Barbara down to the Mexican border.

In some areas, wind speeds on Wednesday were down to 21-36 mph (34-58km/h), from highs of 100mph earlier in the week.

Helicopters and air tankers took advantage of the weather to drop 30 to 35 loads of water on two fires that have burned hundreds of homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Lake Arrowhead.

Several major fires were contained in Los Angeles County.

Map: California fires

Maurice Luque, spokesman for the San Diego Fire Rescue Department, told the BBC that while the crisis was easing in urban San Diego, some rural areas were still under threat.

"The weather has turned a little more calm, there's no winds, the humidity is up, the temperatures are down a little bit in some areas," he said.

"However, in other areas... [the fires] keep spotting ahead of each other, and there's a number of fires that are burning now, and requiring evacuation, and there are homes that continue to burn, mostly in the outlying areas of San Diego, out in the more rural areas."

There were also reports that power lines connecting San Diego to the national grid were under threat.

Mr Schwarzenegger praised the "great co-ordination" and "immediate response" of federal, state and local government agencies to the fires.

He also thanked President Bush for signing the disaster declaration, which will free federal funds to help governments, families and individuals recover from the devastation wrought by the blazes.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (Fema), David Paulison, said the government had learnt lessons from the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast two years ago.

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