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Cool air balm for California wildfires

Los Angeles, Oct. 29 (Reuters): Cooler weather today could help exhausted firefighters battling blazes that have raged across southern California and into Mexico, devouring swathes of land and homes and killing at least 18 people.

The firefighters hoped to take advantage of a drop in temperatures to try to save mountain communities from being destroyed by the surrounding flames. Seventeen fires moving across the state have blackened about 242,800 hectares — an area nearly the size of the US state of Rhode Island — over the course of a week and incinerated 2,000 homes, destroying entire suburban neighbourhoods.

Officials said that at least 18 people have died in one of the state’s worst wildfire seasons and grimly predicted that more charred bodies would be uncovered when the flames were finally doused and rescue workers moved in. Officials were especially worried about the border area with Mexico, a rural area used as a passage into the US by illegal immigrants.

“We haven’t seen this intensity of fire and number of residents being affected ever before,” Andrea Tuttle, director of California department of forestry, said.

“This is an extraordinary 100-year event... This is Mother Nature’s natural fire cycle and when you get winds like this it will overwhelm, for awhile, our ability to deal with them.”

Governor Gray Davis estimated that by the time all of the fires were put out the cost to California would be nearly $2 billion. Officials said a cold front moving in from the north today was expected to give them cooler weather — a key element in battling the wildfires — but could also prove dangerous as accompanying high winds collided with hot air and created unstable conditions.

The biggest worry remained the so-called Old Fire, which had marched through the San Bernardino Mountains and surrounded 16 small mountain communities about 113 km east of Los Angeles. Some 40,000 residents poured off the mountain in the face of a towering firestorm that caught crews off guard and raced toward the resort towns of Crestline, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear.

The flames found abundant fuel in thick underbrush and trees that were matchstick-dry and infested with bark beetles.

In San Diego County, where two major fires have destroyed more than 500 homes and killed 12 people, officials were forced to rest exhausted crews who had been on the fire lines for three days without sleep. The area's two main fires were lapping toward each other and threatening to merge into one superblaze, officials said.

President George W. Bush has declared a state of emergency in four counties, and Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger was visiting Washington to meet congressional leaders on Wednesday to ask for the federal funds triggered by Bush's declaration of a state of emergency.

Davis said additional help was expected to begin arriving on Wednesday from states neighboring California, including eight C-130 Air National Guard tanker planes, which would all be sent to battle the so-called Simi Valley Fire, which was burning just outside Los Angeles and threatening several thousands of multimillion-dollar homes.

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