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1ST SANTA BARBARA FIRE VICTIM FOUND

A woman who tried to outrun an inferno in the canyons above Santa Barbara was found dead Friday as firefighters began taming California's worst conflagration in decades.

Damage estimates soared in Santa Barbara County to at least $240 million, with up to 547 structures lost.Sheriff's officials said Andrea Gurka, 37, was found dead at 9 a.m. by a search and rescue team in a bone-dry creek bed behind her home in the hard-hit San Marcos Pass Road area.

Gurka was killed while trying to flee her home as it was consumed by flames Wednesday evening, the night the fire was set by an arsonist, Sheriff James Thomas said. Her husband reported her missing Thursday night.

Sgt. Jan Bullard said the arsonist, who was being sought, would be prosecuted for murder as a result of the woman's death.

In other developments, a group of insurance companies matched the state's $50,000 reward offer Friday, bringing the bounty to $100,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the fire.

In San Bernardino County, meanwhile, an inmate-firefighter injured earlier this week fighting yet another deliberately set blaze in the town of Hemet, near Palm Springs, died late Thursday night.

Victor Ferrera was one of 17 inmates overrun by flames Wednesday in a blaze that charred 150 acres of grass and brush before it was put out Thursday. One other inmate remained hospitalized Friday in critical condition.

Ferrera and Gurka's deaths brought to eight the number killed in more than a dozen infernos that erupted in the West this week, including a blaze in the Los Angeles County city of Glendale, where 66 homes were damaged or destroyed, and two in Arizona, where some 34,000 acres and 62 summer homes were lost and six firefighters killed.

The fires, fueled by hot winds, triple-digit temperatures, four years of drought and firebugs, destroyed more than 600 homes in Southern California alone.

There also were fires burning in Colorado, one of 3,200 acres and another of 400 acres, and a 4,000-acre blaze in Texas that finally began letting up Friday.

Another $50,000 reward was authorized Friday by Gov. George Deukmejian for information about the Glendale fire. The governor also proclaimed a state of emergency for San Bernardino and Riverside counties, sites of two other fires.

A break in the searing heat and an easing of winds provided the first significant victory Friday to an army of 1,755 firefighters battling the blaze in the canyons outside Santa Barbara.

"The weather is looking fairly good," county spokesman Bill Douros said, noting that temperatures were expected to top out at about 80 degrees with 35 percent humidity and winds blowing to no more than 15 mph. The winds gusted to 60 mph the first night of the fire.

After burning out of control since 6 p.m. and destroying hundreds of homes, the fire was 50 percent contained Friday, and firefighters were expected to stop the advance of the arson-caused flames by noon Saturday.

However, "putting it out altogether will takes days more," Douros said.

According to the latest tally in Santa Barbara, the wildfire charred 4,000 acres and destroyed or severely damaged at least 547 structures, including 447 single-family homes, 80 apartment units in 28 buildings, 13 businesses and six public buildings and a mobile home.

Residential losses, constantly being revised, were pegged Friday afternoon at $240 million, with another $6.5 million in damage to other structures.

However, officials said the losses were expected to climb.