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California fires finally cool off

Officials declared the California wildfires tamed on Monday, 10 days after the blazes began their destructive rampage across a wide swath of Southern California.

"Finally, we're able to say that as of 6 p.m. tonight or 8 a.m. tomorrow, all the fires will be 100 percent contained," said Andrea Tuttle, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The current estimate of the cost of property damage and firefighting costs stands at $2-billion, but officials said the number is certain to rise as the full price of the disaster is assessed. The number does not take into account lost business or other economic costs in areas affected by the fire.

Cold and rainy weather over the weekend finished a job that 15,000 firefighters could not accomplish on their own last week. Although a few hot spots could be seen from the air, rain and snow tamped down virtually all of the remaining flames on Monday. Thousands of local firefighters from across California returned home, leaving the bulk of the containment and rehabilitation job in the hands of the state forestry agency.

Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the creation of a panel to study the lessons from the deadly fires. The group will include federal, state, local and tribal officials and will look at, among other things, tearing down jurisdictional barriers that slowed initial response to the fires, strengthening building and planning codes in fire zones and making military fire-fighting personnel and equipment available more quickly.

The worst of the blazes, the 280,000-acre Cedar fire in San Diego County, was declared 99 percent contained on Monday morning. All roads were reopened and residents were permitted to return to their homes, or the remains of their homes.

But thousands of residents of communities in the San Bernardino mountains remained in shelters or in the homes or friends or relatives on Monday, forbidden by authorities to return home, because of residual dangers.

State officials also began planning programs to replant the devastated canyons and hillsides to prevent flooding and watershed damage in the coming rainy season.

President Bush is scheduled to visit San Diego today. He will tour the destruction by helicopter and then address firefighters at a regional command post.

SENATE APPROVES MONEY FOR WILDFIRES: The Senate on Monday approved $3.4-billion to fight wildfires, record-level spending. In two successive votes, the Senate included $500-million in firefighting money in the $87.5-billion package for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and $2.9-billion as part of an Interior Department spending bill to finance federal lands, national parks and Indian programs in the 2004 budget year. Both bills now go to the president for his signature.

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