Cooler weather helps California firefighters

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FALLBROOK, Calif, Oct 27 (Reuters) Cool weather and calm skies helped thousands of firefighters beat back Southern California wildfires today, although flare-ups in some places meant the battle was not yet over.

In many areas, residents ventured back through charred landscapes to see if their homes were still standing or were among the 2,300 buildings around San Diego and Los Angeles that were destroyed over the past week.

Cool, cloudy weather that rolled in on Friday offered relief to weary firefighters and put to rest -- at least temporarily -- fears that fresh winds could further stoke blazes that have already killed 12 people.

''It helped yesterday and it's helping again today. Looking ahead to tomorrow, they are supposed to get some scattered rain over the area. The weather's really helping out quite a bit,'' said Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

Despite the optimism, firefighters were still battling nine blazes threatening hundreds of homes.

''This is still a very fluid situation that's going to go on for a number of days,'' Chip Prather, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, said in footage shown on CNN.

Efforts were focusing on the largest fire, in San Diego County, that has burned more than 800 sq km and on the Santiago Fire, a smaller blaze in Orange County that media reports said had turned more ferocious overnight.

The big San Diego fire was 60 per cent contained by Saturday at noon, up from 45 per cent earlier in day, Eardley said.

In Fallbrook, about 65 km north of San Diego, work crews surveyed damage from fires that had gutted many homes and blackened large swathes of land, according to a Reuters photographer.

However, authorities said they were turning away Fallbrook residents hoping to survey the damage until they made sure downed power lines in burned-out areas were switched off.

Nearly two dozen fires have burned about 800 square miles over the past week, with about two-thirds of that contained as of late Friday, according to government data.

The losses are expected to top 1 billion dollar in hard-hit San Diego County alone.

More than 320,000 people were still evacuated, though that had fallen from a peak of more than 500,000, according to the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

''Despite the challenges of high winds and dry weather, firefighters are gaining the upper hand and earning the gratitude of their fellow citizens,'' President George W Bush said in a radio address.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the state would give cash grants of up to 10,000 dollar to some of those who lost their homes or belongings or needed medical treatment.

REUTERS SZ PM0115

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