SAN DIEGO — As firefighters gained the upper hand in their five-day battle against the Southern California blazes on Thursday, Border Patrol agents discovered four charred bodies in the rugged mountains near the Mexican border.
If fire was responsible for the four deaths — which authorities said was not immediately certain — the discovery would raise the death toll to seven, more than doubling earlier estimates. At least 75 people have also been injured in the flames that have consumed about 760 square miles and at least 1,800 homes since the weekend.
Despite the deaths, there were hopeful signs Thursday. Firefighters took advantage of calmer winds and cooler temperatures to launch an aerial assault on several stubborn blazes.
Mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for most residential areas of San Diego. Shelters emptied at a rapid rate and residents in some neighborhoods returned to their streets, many lined with the wreckage of melted cars.
President Bush also traveled to the region on Thursday, promising swift action and assistance.
"We want the people to know there's a better day ahead — that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life's going to be better," said Bush, who earlier declared seven counties a major disaster area, making residents eligible for federal assistance to help them rebuild.
Deadly Harris fire
Agents found the burned remains of three males and a female in the mountains east of San Diego, about 10 miles west of the Mexican border town of Tecate.
The area is near a major corridor for illegal immigrants who often walk hours or even days to cross into the United States from Mexico.
“They could have been out there a while,” said Paul Parker, a spokesman for the San Diego County medical examiner’s office.
The area was burned by the Harris Fire, which straddles the Mexican border. The Harris fire earlier claimed the life of a 52-year-old Tecate man who refused to leave his house when the area was evacuated Sunday.
The other two people killed directly by the wildfires also died in San Diego County, the hardest-hit of seven counties where fires were burning.
Bush travels to region
During his visit, Bush surveyed the damage in the hard-hit community of Rancho Bernardo, where he at one point offered comfort to residents Jay and Kendra Jeffcoat, standing near where a single spiral staircase rested amid rubble that used to be their home and near their burned-out car melted into the scorched earth.
“For those of us here in government, our hearts are right here with the Jeffcoats,” the president said, his armed draped around Kendra Jeffcoat. Holding her small brown dog on a leash, she fought back tears.
The president also praised swift action by the California government. "It makes a difference when you have someone in the statehouse taking the lead," Bush said of Schwarzenegger.
Bush earlier dismissed comparisons between this federal response and that during and after Hurricane Katrina, when Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Bush administration initially clashed.
“There’s all kinds of time for historians to compare this response to that response,” Bush said.
Evacuation orders ignored
His visit came just hours after rescue crews found the bodies of a married couple in the rubble of a burned home in Escondido. Like the previous death, the pair had been urged to evacuate.
Neighbors told authorities they last saw the two around midnight Monday. They were reported missing sometime after that.
Sheriff’s deputies on Wednesday had taken a cursory look around the couple’s home and found no one inside. When the two did not turn up during the day, a search-and-rescue team was sent to the site and found one body Wednesday night and a second set of remains early Thursday.
They were identified as John Christopher Bain, 58, a mortgage broker, and his wife, Victoria Fox, 55, a teacher. A relative who did not want to be identified because she was too distraught to talk to other reporters confirmed the deaths to The Associated Press, and their names matched property records for the address where they were found.
At least 40 firefighters and 35 other people have been injured.
Total burn area nears 500,000 acres
In the Los Angeles area, fire crews worked to tamp out many wildfires, including two that burned 21 homes and were now fully contained. But the focus shifted to flames still raging in Orange and San Diego counties, particularly in rural areas near the Mexico border where more evacuation orders were issued.
The total burn area across California had expanded to more than 487,000 acres — about 761 square miles. Eight Indian reservations have been damaged, with evacuation centers set up for tribal members.
San Diego officials said the number of homes destroyed had risen to at least 1,470, about 400 more than previously reported. That would bring the number of homes destroyed in the seven affected counties to at least 1,800.
Evacuees return home
The Santa Ana winds that had fueled the flames were all but gone by Thursday, but San Diego County remained a tinderbox. About 24,000 homes remained threatened, as several major fires were no more than 30 percent contained in San Diego County and the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in mountains east of Los Angeles.
Losses total at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and include nearly 1,500 homes and a third of the state’s avocado crop. The losses are half as high as those in Southern California’s 2003 fires, but are certain to rise.
Some evacuees were being allowed back into their neighborhoods, and shelters were emptying. Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, which sheltered more than 10,000 people at the height of the evacuations, had just 2,500 people left Thursday morning. It was scheduled to close at noon on Friday.
Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003. Authorities also evacuated Jamul, an upscale community of about 6,000 in a hilly region about 20 miles east of San Diego.
David and Brandy Hradecky, who defied evacuation orders with their daughters, said a small percentage of residents stayed in Jamul and worked with firefighters to save their neighbors’ homes.
David Hradecky said he spent 2½ days using his bulldozer to create firebreaks around seven homes. He said his young daughters even used 5-gallon buckets to put out hot spots and quench the thirst of farm animals that had been left behind.
“Where are you going to go? They were evacuating the evacuee places. We know what to do. We took care of all the people’s houses,” said Brandy Hradecky.
To the north, crews were battling a 35,000-acre fire in northern San Diego County that was burning on Palomar Mountain.
Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the state fire department, said there was no immediate threat to the mountain’s landmark observatory, which housed the world’s largest telescope when it was completed in 1908.
In the Lake Arrowhead area, fire officials said 16,000 homes remained in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.
Both fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters.
A 23,000-acre blaze in Orange County has been declared arson. Five people in San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties have been arrested on suspicion of arson, but none has been linked to any of the major blazes, authorities said Thursday.
A sixth man, Russell Lane Daves, 27, of Topock, Ariz., was shot to death by San Bernardino police Tuesday after he fled officers who approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire.
The American Red Cross has set up a service for evacuees to register their status and for loved ones to search for evacuees. Either call 1-800-REDCROSS or go to disastersafe.redcross.org. Click here for more information on how you can help.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.