Firefighters gaining ground, halting blazes
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Firefighters managed to restrain more of California's raging wildfires Friday as the governor predicted the worst of the devastating blazes would be contained within a week.
The Cedar Fire in San Diego County -- the worst in state history -- was 65 percent contained Friday, and fire officials predicted full containment by Wednesday.
That fire is blamed for killing 14 people, including a firefighter.
Gov. Gray Davis said the worst fires, in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles and to the south in San Diego County, probably will be contained "in another week."
State officials said Friday an interagency fact-finding group would investigate the decision not to fly a firefighting helicopter in San Diego County during the early stages of that blaze.
The 56,700-acre Paradise Fire in San Diego County's Valley Center will be fully contained by Monday, fire officials predicted. That fire has been blamed for two fatalities.
In the San Bernardino Mountains, two fires -- the Grand Prix and the Padua -- were 85 percent and 95 percent contained, respectively, and may be fully contained by Sunday, fire officials said.
The Old Fire -- which has merged with the Grand Prix and Padua fires -- remained only about 25 percent contained, and will not reach 100 percent until November 8, fire officials predicted.
Officials said they believe arson caused the Grand Prix and Old fires -- and those responsible could be charged with murder since the conflagration has been blamed for four deaths.
Twenty deaths are blamed on the fires.
By early Friday, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, mountain communities in San Bernardino County, were still at risk from the Old Fire, but to a much lesser extent than just a few days before, said Jerry Snyder of the San Bernardino National Forest joint information center.
West of Los Angeles, the Simi Valley Fire, which has destroyed more than 100,000 acres, was 85 percent contained.
The fires have torched nearly 750,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,800 homes, said Chief Ray Snodgrass of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Andrea Tuttle of the same agency warned that the figures are likely to climb as crews work their way into areas they've been unable to access -- and as some of the 100,000 evacuees head back home and see whether their houses have been reduced to rubble.
Davis also warned that the economic impact of the fires, currently estimated at $2 billion, is likely to climb once property values and the costs of rebuilding are added to the costs of loss infrastructure and the ongoing massive firefighting efforts.
It's too early to assess whether the state's gross domestic product will take a big hit -- and whether a tax increase will be required, he said, saying that depends largely on the amount of federal aid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has pledged to reimburse the state for 75 percent of the costs, as is standard in cases where federal disaster areas are declared.
FEMA has also said it will try to provide additional aid.
Bugs and blame
Both Davis and FEMA downplayed reports that the agency just last week denied a request California made in April to help rid the state of one of the fires' prime fuel sources: thousands of trees killed by a bark beetle infestation.
Davis said Friday he isn't playing the "blame game." The state received $45 million from the federal government to combat the beetle infestation, he said, but he added that he would have liked more.
While the improved weather conditions brought good news for firefighters, it also brought a new challenge. After days of exhaustive, dangerous efforts, they're now battling the cold weather in addition to fatigue.
In some parts of San Bernardino County Friday, there were even snow flurries.
For victims who have lost their homes and possessions, there is a long road ahead.
"It's not the house, it's the mementos," said Cary Meyer, fighting back tears as she stood in front of a pile of rubble that was once her home in San Diego County's Scripps Ranch neighborhood.
"We've been married for 26 years," said her husband, Tony. "Everything that we own and everything that we worked for is in that house."