Bush swoops in with pledge to help California

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The Independent US

President Bush took a helicopter tour of the fire-ravaged hillsides of southern California yesterday, determined to prove that he was on top of a major disaster in all the ways he was not when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans two years ago.

Having already dispatched his Homeland Security chief and the full resources of the Pentagon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the president himself decided to make a rare appearance in a state which has shown little political love for him in the past.

"It's a sad situation out there in southern California," he said as he left the White House early yesterday morning. "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... There will be help for the people of California."

Bush arrived as the worst of the fire danger was passing and tens of thousands of people were authorised to return to their homes, especially in the San Diego suburbs.

But five days of hot, gusting desert winds across the region have left almost 700 square miles, including 1,600 buildings, burnt to a crisp. About 60 people, including two dozen firefighters, have been treated for burns and other serious injuries and eight people have been reported dead, three of them directly as a result of the fires.

The death toll is likely to rise as rescue workers gain access to gutted buildings. Two bodies were found yesterday in Poway, one of the hardest hit towns northeast of San Diego.

The state insurance agency has estimated the damage at well over $1bn (£480m), and California will be counting on the White House, above all, to provide cheap construction loans, grants and compensation to those who have lost their property.

Of the 15 major fires that broke out this week, just two were still burning with any ferocity. One, on the eastern flanks of Orange County south of Los Angeles, grew overnight from Wednesday to Thursday because a change in wind direction sent the flames shooting further east. That doesn't threaten any homes, but it does risk a major conflagration in the Cleveland National Forest if firefighters don't get the blaze under control quickly.

The other was in the San Bernardino mountains east of Los Angeles, where 300 homes nestled in the forests around Lake Arrowhead have gone up in smoke. Firefighters said they hoped to tame that blaze today with the help of aerial drops of water and fire retardant.

The seasonal Santa Ana winds, which blew with hurricane force in some areas earlier the week, have now subsided, replaced in many parts by a cool breeze blowing in off the coast. The air across much of the region remains thick with smoke and ash, but is expected to clear over the next few days.

Alongside the firefighting effort, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police have begun to track down arsonists suspected of responsibility for starting most of the fires, as well as looters.

At least three people were arrested yesterday, including one man seen starting a fire in the LA suburb of West Hills. Police in San Bernardino, 60 miles east of LA, also disclosed that they had shot dead a suspected arsonist who led them on a car chase on Tuesday evening. He was cornered on a dirt road leading into the burning foothills.