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INTERNATIONAL: EUR1bn disaster; US counts the cost as wildfires spread.

Byline: By WESLEY JOHNSON

US President George Bush declared a "major disaster" in southern California last night as wildfires continued to rage across the state.

The move, on the day before Mr Bush travels to the area, will enable federal funds to go to the hundreds of thousands of families affected by the series of 16 fires.

The president said he thought the fire-fighting effort was "well-co-ordinated" and that he hoped the winds would die down as forecast, which would increase the effectiveness of the equipment being used to tackle the blazes.

In worst-hit San Diego, damage from the fires of the past four days was put at least one billion dollars (pounds 500m) by officials.

Ron Lane, the county's director of emergency services, said: "Clearly, this is going tobe a one billion dollar or more disaster."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said that damage surveys have been requested and will be conducted as soon as the situation permits.

Some of the half-million people chased from their homes by the flames were being allowed to return to their neighbourhoods last night.

Mr Lane said at least 1,200 homes had been destroyed in the county, a number officials believe will rise.

That brings to roughly 1,500 the number of homes destroyed in the seven-county region that has been ablaze since Sunday.

California has seen the biggest US evacuation since Hurricane Katrina as the fires burned about 410,000 acres, about 640 square miles.

Forecasters said the Santa Ana wind, which has fanned the blazes across southern California, would begin to weaken, followed by cooling sea breezes.

Homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff said the improving conditions could allow a greater aerial assault on the 16 wildfires and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes.

One person was killed by the flames and the San Diego medical examiner's officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.

A total of 21 firefighters and at least 24 others have been injured.

Thousands of people packed emergency shelters, where many had an agonising wait to find out whether their homes had survived.

The largest gathering was at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where evacuees anxiously watched televisions, hoping for a glimpse of their neighbourhood on the local news.

CAPTION(S):

A throughbred horse named Montimiero runs in a corral on the 6,000-a race Rancho Temescal in Piru, California, as wildfires range around him
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 25, 2007
Words:404
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