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Winds ease in Calif. wildfires
Firefighting efforts get a boost; losses top $1B

SAN DIEGO - A merciful easing of the winds fueling Southern California's sprawling wildfires finally gave fire crews a chance to fight back against some blazes Wednesday, and weary residents could take solace in an overriding sign of hope: Just one person has died from the flames.

That contrasts to 22 dead from a fire of similar magnitude in 2003. And while the final toll has yet to be tallied from this week's fires, officials were crediting an automated, reverse 911 calling system that prompted the orderly evacuation of more than half a million people - 10 times the number evacuated four years ago.

'They are more determined that people leave,' said Steve Levstik, who got his call 15 minutes before flames swept through his Rancho Bernardo neighborhood.

'It was very intense. On the call, it was like, 'This area, go! This area, go!' In 2003 there was less guidance. It was like, 'Just pay attention to the news and if it looks bad, leave.'

On Wednesday, winds dropped to 21 to 36 mph, considerably less than the fierce gusts of up to 100 mph that whipped fire zones earlier in the week.

The improving weather allowed for a greater aerial assault on the flames and helped firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes. Helicopters and air tankers dropped 30 to 35 loads of water on two fires that have burned hundreds of homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Lake Arrowhead.

'They're taking it down considerably,' said Dennis Bouslaugh of the U.S. Forest Service.

Authorities said they had largely contained many of the fires north of San Diego, and all five fires in Los Angeles County were about 50 percent contained or more.

Despite the progress, none of the six major blazes in San Diego County was more than 15 percent contained, and those fires threatened more than 8,500 houses. The top priority was a fire in San Bernardino County that threatened 6,000 homes and continued to rage out of control.

So far, this week's fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes and burned 674 square miles across five counties, from Ventura in the north all the way into Mexico.

Property damage has reached at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California. The president was scheduled to visit the region today.