Stubborn fires continued to rage through wilderness areas of San Diego and Orange counties Thursday, and the toll rose with the grim discovery of six more bodies of people caught in the infernos. But the danger to homes and businesses subsided and many of those affected by Southern California's latest natural disaster began taking the first steps toward a return to normalcy.
President Bush briefly visited the fire zone, taking a helicopter tour over the devastated San Diego community of Rancho Bernardo and later meeting with evacuees and firefighters.
Bush was generous with hugs and sympathy, and also promised federal assistance to victims of the fires, which ravaged portions of seven counties, destroying 1,775 homes .
"To the extent people need the help of the federal government, we will help," Bush pledged.
Thursday morning, two bodies were found in a burned-out home in Escondido. Using dental records, officials identified the victims as Victoria Katherine Fox, 55, and her husband, John Christopher Bain, 58.
Later Thursday, U.S. Border Patrol agents found the charred bodies of four suspected illegal immigrants believed to have died in the Harris fire, which swept through a rugged area east of San Diego that is crisscrossed by hundreds of migrant trails.
Agents on routine patrol discovered the bodies at the bottom of a canyon north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, near an area where four illegal immigrants were rescued Sunday.
"It's very tragic," said Gloria Chavez, a Border Patrol assistant chief based in San Diego.
Even in the best weather conditions, the steep canyons and mountains make for treacherous treks. Since 2001, at least 30 migrants have died trying to cross in the area.
About a dozen suspected illegal immigrants burned in the Harris fire are being treated at the UC San Diego Regional Burn Unit. Several remain in critical condition, said Alberto Lozano, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.
The six victims raised the overall death toll to seven.
In addition, three people have died in auto accidents related to the fires, and seven evacuees in San Diego County have died, including two whose deaths were reported Thursday.
Thursday marked the second straight day of weather that was dramatically more favorable to firefighters, with calmer winds and higher humidity.
"This is really allowing us to make great progress and really attack those fires," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state fire agency.
Howard Windsor, a forestry department incident commander, was cautiously optimistic when he told evacuees at Steele Canyon High School in southern San Diego County that "we're getting the upper hand" on the Harris fire, one of two major fires still burning in the San Diego area. By late Thursday, it was 20% contained.
Fire officials said the blaze was no longer threatening any residential areas.
Farther north, the larger Witch fire was 30% contained. At nearly 200,000 acres, it has become the fourth-largest fire in California history. (The largest, the 2003 Cedar fire, burned some of the same terrain.) It also is the most destructive of the latest spate of fires, having destroyed 1,061 houses.
In Orange County, the Santiago fire was still burning along the ridgelines of the Santa Ana Mountains and threatening Silverado Canyon and its 750 homes.
Fire authorities said the fate of Silverado Canyon depends on whether the favored onshore winds continue to blow.
"If the wind stays normal, everything will be fine," said Mike Rohde, a battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority. If not, it will be a "totally different story."
Fueled by dry shrubs and trees, the Santiago fire raged into the rugged Cleveland National Forest, burning up the slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains and threatening to cross into Riverside County.
Firefighters in eastern Orange County had so far kept the 25,000-acre fire from reaching homes in Trabuco and Live Oak canyons, the most endangered communities.
Meanwhile, Orange County authorities appealed to the public to help them catch an arsonist suspected of setting the fire Sunday evening near Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads. Officials were offering a $150,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction.
Arson is also suspected in a fire in Temecula, as well as in several smaller fires. Arson arrests were made in San Diego and San Bernardino counties.
In the mountains of San Bernardino County, favorable weather helped firefighters make progress against both the Grass Valley fire near Lake Arrowhead and the Slide fire near Running Springs and Arrowbear. By Thursday evening, the Slide fire was 15% contained, though about 10,000 homes continued to be threatened.
No additional homes were lost in either the Slide or Grass Valley fires, said Mike Dietrich, the fire chief of the San Bernardino National Forest. The Grass Valley fire did not grow, and was 70% contained.