Search for human remains begins as wildfires subside in California

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As the wildfires subsided across southern California yesterday, rescue workers pressed ahead with the grim task of uncovering charred and blistered bodies from some of the 1,800 homes destroyed in five days of scorching heat and perilous desert winds.

To date, they have found nine victims – four who perished in their homes in the north-eastern suburbs of San Diego and five Mexican would-be immigrants who were engulfed by the 70,000-acre Harris fire which raged along the border.

How many corpses are found find will depend on the effectiveness of the evacuation orders issued earlier in the week. Up to one million people living in wilderness areas on the edges of San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties were urged to flee but the amount of traffic on the roads suggests that far fewer than that actually left. When the last big fires hit the region four years ago, 23 people perished – most of them in just two San Diego suburbs where the flames arrived too quickly for anyone to get out in time.

Yesterday, emergency crews were struggling to contain two of the most persistent fires. One was in Orange County, where cooler, coastal winds have blown the inferno eastwards, threatening a whole new series of canyons and homes around Lake Elsinore. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, meanwhile, was trying to trace an arsonist suspected of lighting a fire at Modjeska Canyon which set several hillsides ablaze and destroyed nine houses. The council and a radio station collectively offered a $250,000 (£125,000) reward to anyone who could name the culprit.

The other persistent fire was in the San Bernardino mountains east of Los Angeles, where 300 homes have been destroyed so far and only 15 per cent of the blaze has been contained. More than 1,300 firemen, backed by air crews dumping water and fire retardant, continued to fight the blaze, which could threaten 10,000 properties if it is not tamed.

Elsewhere, though, signs of recovery were emerging. Air pollution, which has kept schoolchildren out of their playgrounds all week, dropped markedly across the Los Angeles area.

A disaster shelter set up at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, which housed 9,000 people earlier this week, was down to its last 50 evacuees. And the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which had temporarily evacuated most of its menagerie to a facility nearer the coast, reopened its doors to the public.

Of course, it is still far too soon to assess the total cost of the damage. California's state insurance agency has put the figure at more than $1bn, but that is likely to be a conservative early estimate.