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Wildfire death toll rises; calmer winds aid firefighters

SAN DIEGO — San Diego County authorities said Thursday they have discovered the bodies of two more people believed to have been killed in the wildfires that scorched Southern California this week.

Recovery crews found the burned bodies of a man and a woman in a gutted home in Escondido, north of San Diego, said county Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Jan Caldwell. Their ages were unknown but they were believed to be related, according to the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office.

Neighbors told officials they last saw the pair around midnight Monday when they told them to evacuate, Caldwell said. They were reported missing sometime after that.

The discovery brings to 10 the number of deaths connected to the fires. Three people died in the flames and seven evacuees died of various other causes.

The grim announcement came on a day when officials were otherwise upbeat. Prospects for gaining control of some of the most severe fires heightened as the Santa Ana winds calmed and temperatures dropped, although firefighters did lose ground overnight on one Orange County blaze.

Evacuees were being allowed back into several neighborhoods, and shelters were beginning to empty at an increasingly rapid rate. Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, once the largest shelter for fire refugees, had just 2,500 people left Thursday morning.

On the fire lines, crews were making their first major progress, aided by a massive aerial assault and a break in the Santa Ana winds, which were all but gone on Thursday.

"That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts," National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.

Record high temperatures of recent days also began succumbing to cooling sea breezes, and two fires that burned 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County were fully contained.

President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, took an aerial tour of the burn areas Thursday, accompanied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger described the devastation they saw as "heartbreaking."

"It's a sad situation out there in Southern California," Bush said outside the White House as he prepared to leave for California. "I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts. They just need to know a lot of folks care about them."

Losses total at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and include a third of the state's avocado crop. The losses are half as high as those in Southern California's 2003 fires, but are certain to rise.

On Thursday, officials said the number of San Diego County homes destroyed had risen to at least 1,470, about 400 more than previously reported. That would bring the number of homes destroyed in the seven-county area to at least 1,800.

The more hopeful news on the fire lines came a day after residents in some hard-hit San Diego County neighborhoods were allowed back to their streets, many lined with the wreckage of melted cars.

In upscale Rancho Bernardo, house after house had been reduced to a smoldering heap. Cheryl Monticello, 38 and eight months pregnant, knew what she would find when she came back Wednesday because a city official warned her the house was lost. But she had to see it for herself.

When she got there she discovered that only the white brick chimney and her daughter's backyard slide had survived the inferno that bore down on her neighborhood Monday morning.

"You really need to see it to know for sure," Monticello said.

Officials continued to lift evacuation orders, the latest in Escondido, which was particularly hard hit.

Despite the improving news, nearly 18,000 customers in the San Diego area remained without power Thursday. A San Diego Gas & Electric Co. helicopter attempting to restore power crashed Thursday morning, but all four people aboard escaped injury. The cause of the crash wasn't immediately known.

In the Lake Arrowhead resort area, Running Springs resident Ricky Garcia returned to his house in the San Bernardino Mountains on Wednesday, panicked that his street had been wiped out and his cats, Jeff and Viper, were lost.

But his house, a new home built on a cleared lot, was unscathed, unlike those of his neighbors. Hiding underneath a porch and mewing loudly was Jeff, his long, black hair gray with ash. Viper, however, was nowhere in sight.

"I'm excited to see my cat and my house, but absolutely devastated for my neighbors," he said, after loading Jeff into a carrier and preparing to evacuate again. "I've been through fires before, but this one hit a lot closer to home."

As nature's blitzkrieg starts to recede, even more evacuees will be allowed back to their neighborhoods. More than 500,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County alone, part of the largest mass evacuation in California history.

County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said authorities were starting to transition to a recovery mode.

"Things were a lot slower here last night, it wasn't as active," Kirk said Thursday. "We are focusing more on recovery and getting these people back up on their feet again."

She said local assistance centers, with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on hand, were being established in three of the county's most devastated communities: Fallbrook, Ramona and Rancho Bernardo.

Even with the slackening winds, the county remains a tinderbox. Firefighters cut fire lines around sections of the major blazes in San Diego County, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained. More than 8,500 homes were still threatened.

Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003. Authorities also evacuated Jamul, an upscale community of about 6,000 in a hilly region about 20 miles east of San Diego.

To the north, crews were battling a 35,000-acre fire in northern San Diego County that was burning on Palomar Mountain.

Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the state fire department, said there was no immediate threat to the mountain's landmark observatory, which housed the world's largest telescope when it was completed in 1908.

In the Lake Arrowhead area, fire officials said 16,000 homes remained in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.

Both fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters.

The total burn area of more than 482,000 acres — about 753 square miles — stretches in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the middle of that arc, is the Santiago Fire in Orange County, which has burned nearly 23,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. Only 30 percent contained Thursday, it is believed to be the result of arson. It had been 50 percent contained Wednesday, but firefighters lost ground overnight as it moved into the Cleveland National Forest.

Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to help investigate. Authorities said a smaller fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.

Despite the widespread destruction, the death toll remains below that of the 2003 Southern California firestorms, which killed 22.

Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate was the first person said to be killed directly by this week's fires. In addition to the two bodies announced Thursday, the San Diego medical examiner's office has listed seven other deaths as connected to the blazes because all who died were evacuees.

Sheriff's deputies had taken a cursory look around the latest victims' home around 9 a.m. Wednesday and found no one inside, Caldwell said. When they did not turn up during the day, a search and rescue team was sent to the site and found one body at around 7 p.m. Wednesday. The second set of remains was found around 12:30 a.m. Thursday.

The bodies were found in a cinderblock, garage-sized building behind a home that sits alone atop a hill overlooking the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

The number of victims could continue to rise as authorities begin to search neighborhoods where homes burned.

Associated Press Writers Martha Mendoza in Running Springs, Scott Lindlaw in Julian, and Thomas Watkins, Jacob Adelman and Jeremiah Marquez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.