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Bush surveys damage in California

Promises victims a strong response from government

A man and woman combed through the remains of a home in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of San Diego yesterday. A man and woman combed through the remains of a home in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of San Diego yesterday. (John Gress/Reuters)

LOS ANGELES - President Bush toured Southern California yesterday as investigators got down to the work of determining how one sunny fall day last weekend erupted into a 16-fire storm now in its fifth day.

Recovery crews, moving from house to house in towns where the fires have passed, found the bodies of two people in the shell of a home in Poway, northeast of San Diego. And in the early evening, San Diego officials said, Border Patrol agents found the burned bodies of four immigrants who may have been killed while crossing the border.

The immigrants, three men and a woman, were found in woods near Barrett Junction, east of San Diego, the Associated Press reported. They were the first confirmed fatalities since Sunday, when a man was killed in Protrero, near the Mexican border.

Bush, joined by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, also a Republican, visited the charred remains of neighborhoods, met distraught residents and exhausted fire crews, and viewed fires that continue to burn throughout the region.

By yesterday, the fires had destroyed 1,800 homes, injured 57 people, and burned a half million acres.

The president pointedly praised Schwarzenegger's handling of the country's biggest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina two years ago, making veiled comparisons to local relief efforts at that time in Louisiana.

"It makes a big difference when you have someone in the State House willing to take the lead," Bush said at a news conference in a possible dig at the Louisiana governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat. He also assured California residents that "we're not gonna forget you in Washington, D.C."

With most of the fires no longer posing a significant threat, fire officials were stepping up efforts to determine how much of the blame for the devastation fell on nature and how much on a criminal element.

In Orange County, where the authorities have determined a large fire north of Mission Viejo was intentionally set, investigators have begun to interview people about possible suspects, closed canyon roads yesterday, and sifted through the rubble in search of clues.

The fire there, which is still burning, has consumed 20,000 acres and nine houses. On Wednesday, FBI agents descended on Santiago Canyon Road near Irvine to gather evidence, which was sent to a lab to be analyzed.

"We desperately want to catch the person or persons that did this," said Chip Prather, the Orange County Fire Authority chief at a news conference in Irvine. The evidence at the scene, which Prather would not discuss further, suggested arson, he said.

A separate fire, to the east in Riverside County, has also been tagged by investigators as arson. At least two people, in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, have been arrested on suspicion of arson.

The massive scale and ferocity of the fires almost certainly stemmed from a trajectory familiar to firefighters, fire investigation specialists said.

Fires created through human error, lightning, or a downed power line typically create large embers that can fly as far as a mile through the powerful Santa Ana winds, setting off new blazes.

Early indications point to downed power lines as the culprit in a fire in Malibu and possibly two others.

Arsonists begin their pattern of copying them, investigators said, aided by wind, miles of drought-created tinder, and the steep hills that are prevalent throughout the state, which make for far better fire-spreading conditions than flatlands.

"It's not by accident that you get 17 or 18 fires going at the same time," said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Firefighters, referring to the convergence of natural and accidental factors. "There is no question you then get serial artist copycats out to create the next and larger event."

The history of wildfires in California has proved the point over and over.

Last year, arson and murder charges were filed against a 36-year-old man in connection with a wildfire that killed five Forest Service firefighters 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

The authorities said they were investigating whether the accused suspect in that fire was involved with scores of other fires in the region over a number of years.

Of the more that 20 fires that roared across six California counties in 2003, roughly half were suspected or confirmed to have stemmed from arson.

Investigators are tipped to possible arson when they discover multiple points of origin in a fire - as was the case in the fire now burning in Orange County, according to the fire chief - and other physical evidence.

"Arsonists are fascinated with fires," said Charles P. Ewing, a forensic psychologist and law professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo. "So they are likely the ones following the fires very closely. Then, it's not uncommon for arsonists to engage in copycat activity or to piggyback on a naturally occurring fire."

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