BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. -- Fog and drizzle yesterday came to the rescue of firefighters laboring to save resort towns in Southern California from the raging wildfires that have killed at least 20 people.
"It is helping, but it is a long way from putting any fires out," said Ray Snodgrass, chief deputy director of the California Forestry Department. "It's the respite we were hoping for."
The forecast, however, also called for gusting winds that could drive the flames toward more homes.
Firefighters dug in to protect hundreds of homes still threatened in San Bernardino and San Diego counties. But only a few hundred acres of thick forest were burned overnight by one of the most devastating and erratic of the fires -- a 50,000-acre blaze east of Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains.
"That's minimal for this fire, considering 20,000 [acres] burned the first day," said Battalion Chief Dan Odom of the San Bernardino County Fire Department.
The wildfires have blazed for more than a week across Southern California, destroying more than 2,600 homes and blackening 730,000 acres. Yesterday, seven major fires were still burning in four counties.
In Washington, the House last night approved a record $2.9 billion for firefighting and fire protection in federal forests, while the Senate approved a plan to make it easier to thin out forests so they are less susceptible to wildfires.
Yesterday morning, fire had advanced to within 12 miles of the mountain resort town of Big Bear as crews spread fire-resistant gel on houses and cleared debris around them. The effort was helped by a heavy fog that rolled in overnight. The forecast called for highs in the mid-50s, down from more than 100 degrees over the weekend.
About 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in eastern San Diego County. Saving the town of 3,500, a popular weekend getaway, was the county's top priority. Light rain, fog, and drizzle were reported in Julian, but winds of 25 to 30 miles per hour were expected throughout the day. As the winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near town and forced some crews to retreat.
A blaze of more than 100,000 acres on the line between Ventura and Los Angeles counties was winding down.
"I think we're going to nail this one today," said Los Angeles County fire Battalion Chief Scott Poster.
In all, nearly 12,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Governor Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.
Just as the wildfires were beginning late last week, the Bush administration quietly turned down a six-month-old emergency request by Davis for help in removing dead and dying trees in the forests now being consumed by flame.
If approved, it would have paved the way for millions of dollars for clearing dead trees in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.
"We made the request in the hope of making a horrific situation less serious and we were turned down," Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said.
The total cost of fighting the fires could reach $200 million, and the toll on the California economy has been put at $2 billion.
Authorities say they still haven't arrested anyone for sparking any of the Southern California wildfires, three of which are believed to be arson.