California Officials Offer $150,000 Reward to Find Arson Suspects in Deadly Wildfire
California officials raised a bounty Thursday in an effort to find suspects behind the biggest in a string of deadly wildfires still burning out of control that are responsible for at least 10 deaths, more than 1,500 destroyed homes and nearly half a million scorched acres.
“We desperately want to catch the people or person who did this,” said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather at a news conference.
The $150,000 reward came as President Bush toured some of the hardest-hit areas in San Diego and promised federal aid for thousands of victims.
"It's important for me to come out here and see firsthand the situation," Bush said at a press conference with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, telling victims that "today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life is going to be better."
Also on Thursday, four charred bodies were found in an apparent migrant camp burned by one of the wildfires raging east of San Diego, authorities said.
The bodies were found in a wooded area near Barrett Junction, just east of San Diego and along the Mexican border, said Paul Parker, a spokesman for the San Diego County medical examiner's office.
Authorities said they discovered the bodies Thursday afternoon but did not know how long ago the victims died.
"They could have been out there a while," Parker said.
Local and state officials have combined with the FBI to hunt down suspects responsible for the blazes. Two suspects were arrested and another died in a gunfight with police.
Bush took a helicopter tour and visited the hard-hit Rancho Bernardo area before talking about recovery efforts and lunching with rescue crews.
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With at least 1,500 homes destroyed since the fires began Saturday, state emergency officials warned that thousands of more homes remain in danger by the still-spreading blazes.
Meanwhile, investigators searched for clues that could lead to potential arson suspects in four fires believed to be set by arsonists. The FBI has become involved in the investigation because part of the fire was on federal land in a National Forest.
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Rescue crews discovered two burned bodies in a gutted home, bringing the death toll to at least 8 in connection to the deadly fires.
Firefighters worked to gain control of the most severe fires with help from the vertical movement of the smoke showing that the fierce Santa Ana winds that had whipped seemingly small brush fires into a 460,000 acre inferno were starting to ease, FOX News' Claudia Cowan reported.
That lull in the firestorm is expected to be short-lived, however, as forecasters warn that favorable conditions for firefighters may not last through the weekend.
Accuweather.com meteorologist Ken Clark reported Thursday that a new area of high pressure could return high winds to the fire-ravaged counties over the weekend.
The Santiago fire grew to 22,000 acres Wednesday night, while containment of the flames shrank from 50 percent to 30 percent.
Los Angeles police arrested a man on suspicion of arson after witnesses said they saw him lighting a fire on a hillside. Catalino Pineda was booked for investigation of arson but officials could not say whether Pineda was connected to the wildfires.
Orange County officials executed a search warrant Wednesday as part of a probe into whether one or more of the fires in that county were the result of arson. Earlier Wednesday, the California Highway Patrol arrested a motorcyclist who was caught setting a brush fire in San Bernadino County, near Lake Arrowhead.
Investigators will talk to fire crews first on the scene and try to find eyewitnesses for clues leading to potential suspects, said Rick Price, a former Los Angeles fire investigator.
Jodi Miller, a spokesperson for San Bernardino County, told FOX News that the small brush fire set by John Hund, 48, of Hesperia, was an isolated incident and immediately extinguished by witnesses. He is not suspected of starting wildfires burning large swaths of the county.
In the city of San Bernardino, police said they shot and killed a man who fled Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire. After a chase, the man, whose name was not released, backed his car into a police cruiser and an officer opened fire, police said.
The fires forced almost one million people from their homes — the largest evacuation in the state's history. More than 70,000 homes remained threatened.
"Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster," Ron Lane, San Diego County's director of emergency services, told reporters during a news conference.
Some of the evacuees, whose homes were located closer to the coast, were being allowed back into their neighborhoods. Interstate 5, which had been closed between Los Angeles and San Diego, was reopened to southbound traffic.
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Click here for Adam Housley's blog from the scene.
The fires have engulfed Southern California's oceanfront wealth belt, laying waste to multi-million dollar homes. But at Qualcomm Stadium, where thousands of evacuees have taken refuge, the Schlotte family of Ramona, Calif., spoke to FOX News of a different reality.
The family did not own property, but were renters with no insurance to cover their losses. Ben Schlotte, a house painter, lost his work truck and equipment in the fire, and said that with so many homes destroyed in the area, his painting business was essentially finished.
"All of our memories are gone," his wife, Billy, said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.