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One fire fully contained

Precipitation poses new threat of mudslides

Firefighters bundle up for cold weather -- which is proving a key ally in the battle to contain wildfires across California.

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San Diego (California)

SAN BERNARDINO, California (CNN) -- One of southern California's major wildfires was fully contained Saturday night, with the help of rain and snow, firefighters said. Firefighters also made progress against two other fires, but rainy weather poses a new threat of mudslides on land stripped of vegetation.

The fire in Simi Valley, in Ventura and northwestern Los Angeles counties, was 100 percent contained by Saturday night after burning 108,204 acres, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. The fire devoured 64 buildings.

The Grand Prix fire, one of three major wildfires in the mountains, was 95 percent contained, and fire center spokesman Gil Knight predicted it could be weeks before the blaze is under control. It has charred more than 59,000 acres and destroyed 52 homes, the state Forestry Department said. Evacuation orders remained in effect for several thousand people.

The Grand Prix fire in San Bernardino County was 95 percent contained Saturday afternoon, the California Department of Forestry reported. So was the nearby Padua fire in Los Angeles County.

Firefighters have had cloudy, cool and rainy weather on their side for the past two days, and winds have died down. Most of the rain has moved into Arizona, said CNN meteorologist Orleon Sidney, but scattered showers are still possible in the San Diego area.

The Grand Prix fire is one of three major wildfires in the mountains, which are home to several resorts. It has charred more than 59,000 acres and destroyed 52 homes, the state Forestry Department said. Evacuation orders remained in effect for several thousand people.

The Padua fire was 95 percent contained, up 5 percent from earlier Saturday, after burning more than 10,000 acres.

Firefighters were still struggling to contain the larger Old fire, which has scoured 91,000 acres, killed four people and destroyed 850 homes and 10 businesses.

The Old fire was listed as 45 percent contained, but officials from the state forestry department said the Santa Ana winds that whipped up the fires when they started last weekend are expected to return next week. It was not expected to be contained until November 8.

Rainy weather poses new threat

The precipitation, which helps squelch the fires, has brought a new danger to the area -- a risk of mudslides down hills that fire had stripped of trees and brush.

"We've had about an inch of rain this morning, so the snow has melted and it's now turning to muck," Beckley said.

One mudslide was reported Saturday morning near the town of Crestline, blocking part of a highway, she said.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge joined Gov. Gray Davis Saturday for a tour of the fire scene in Claremont, east of Los Angeles. Ridge's department oversees FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Devastation 'takes your breath away'

Firefighters from Elko, Nevada, extinguish a smoldering tree near Julian, California, on Saturday.
Firefighters from Elko, Nevada, extinguish a smoldering tree near Julian, California, on Saturday.

Ridge told reporters the scope of the devastation "takes your breath away," and praised the roughly 15,000 people involved in the firefighting effort.

"I just met a fireman who was trying to save somebody else's house when his went up in flames," Ridge said. "In the operations center, there are a couple of people on duty today -- 12-hour shifts. They lost their homes, but they know they still have a job to do, and maybe their presence will help save somebody else's homes."

The week-old fires have killed 20 people and destroyed more than 3,300 homes, authorities reported.

About 750,000 acres have been blackened across five southern California counties. State officials estimate the fires have caused $2 billion worth of damage, and Davis said that number will grow as changes in property value and the price tag of rebuilding are factored into the overall damages.

The Cedar Fire in San Diego County -- the largest in state history -- was 81 percent contained Saturday after burning 281,000 acres of land. Firefighters expected to have it contained by Monday, said Lora Lowes, a spokeswoman for the firefighting effort there.

Emotional toll

Firefighter Steven Rucker died Wednesday while fighting the Cedar Fire near San Diego.
Firefighter Steven Rucker died Wednesday while fighting the Cedar Fire near San Diego.

Los Angeles firefighters held a memorial service Saturday in San Bernardino County for fellow firefighter Steve Rucker, who died Wednesday while fighting the Cedar fire near San Diego.

Firefighters aboard 55 fire engines formed the name "Rucker" with their trucks. Rucker is the only firefighter among the 20 fatalities from the fires.

Hundreds of residents were combing through the charred rubble where their homes once stood, searching for pieces of their life.

Others were thankful their homes were spared.

"We have a house and it was quite a relief to go back to it," said Sally Eckberg, a resident of Scripps Ranch in San Diego County, hardest hit by the fires. "We escaped and we're very fortunate."

She told CNN that said the path of the fire often made no sense as it shunned some homes and destroyed others.

"There is absolutely no explanation for how close that fire comes," Eckberg said. "In walking around the neighborhood, it's so sad. You want to help. But it's almost like it's a holy place and you don't want to intrude."

The Scripps Ranch home of Steve Homel was the only one on a block of 48 homes that wasn't destroyed.

Don Stern looks through the remains of his burned down home in Waterman Canyon, California, on Saturday.

"It was like the end of the world was going on. it was dark and flames were coming over the top. and we ran for it and we didn't think -- with what we were running from -- that there would be anything at all left, least of all our house."

Ten shelters are open, down from 40, and are housing nearly 2,200 people, said disaster worker Tracy Gary in San Bernardino. She said 12,600 people have stayed in the shelters since the fires began.

"Many in the shelters don't even know if their homes are damaged or still standing," she said. People who need to locate family members can call 1-866-GET-INFO.

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