It looks like the worst may be over for Californians in what CNN calls the "largest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina":
Winds that blew as hard as 101 mph on Sunday dropped to 75 mph on Monday, 50 mph on Tuesday and continued to ease Wednesday.
As conditions improved officials allowed people to return to communities that had been off-limits because of intense flames and dense smoke.
Meanwhile, dry Santa Ana winds that have fanned the flames, changed direction and began blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, increasing the humidity and easing the burden on almost 8,900 firefighters in the area.
The rate of burning had slowed significantly by Wednesday as officials continued what they called an "unprecedented effort" to battle the flames.
Still, the fire damage increased to 434,543 acres, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Joe Gandelman has been reporting on the wildfires in California since they started. Here is some of what he had to say today:
I was driving up the I-5 last night at around 9 p.m. on a night when the fires continued to rage in California. I was heading north to Cerritos, CA, in the L.A. area — and did not expected what I saw shining in the darkeness ahead. It was quite a jolt:
The hills were alive.
And not with the sound of music…
As my car moved closer towards Marine base Camp Pendleton I could see huge flames jumping along the hills in front of me. An eerie and frightening orange hue lit up the base of the skyline. It seemed as if the hills were were directly front of me. But, as I drew closer, it became clear the hills were actually on the east side of the freeway.
One of the reasons you could tell was that the side of the freeway was crammed with stopped cars with lookie-loos standing aside their vehicles, taking in the historical sight of part of Camp Pendleton in flames. Others took pictures with cell phones.
I wanted to get out of there ASAP before the fire jumped the freeway and it was closed — which is precisely what happened this morning[.]
One of the fires came dangerously close to a nuclear power plant. San Diego's electricity supply is threatened. It looks like one of the fires was set by an arsonist. Others were started by downed power lines and car fires.
This is an utter catastrophe for California:
How devastating and monster are the fires? Look at these facts from an article:
–So far the blazes have killed three people and inured 30.
–25,000 more structure remain at risk.
–Nearly 9,000 firefighters are battling the blazes.
–Fires destroyed 1,664 structures, including 1,436 homes
–Damage so far has impacted 679 square miles.
–Some 900,000 people have been asked to evacuate their homes.
Pres. Bush is coming in for criticism from an unusual source:
President Bush isn’t doing a heck of a job balancing National Guard call-ups to Iraq with states’ needs back home – and that’s crimping the government response to the California wildfires, according to the man who took the blame for the botched federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
Michael D. Brown, former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told WJLA-TV reporter Rebecca Cooper in an exclusive interview Wednesday that the administration has not recognized how much of a “problem” it has with disaster response since so many National Guard troops are in war zones.
He did not directly criticize the White House response to the fires.
“The White House needs to recognize that we are overstretched and that there is a problem,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “They need to increase the size of the regular Army and stop relying so much on the National Guard.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) complained on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the ability of the state's National Guard to respond to disasters like the fires has been compromised because too much of its equipment and personnel are committed in Iraq, The Associated Press reported.
Brown's replacement at FEMA, of course, "has not seen an issue with the Guard:
In fact, they're moving a lot of National Guards in here on the ground."
Paulison added on CNN’s “American Morning” that “plenty of Guardspeople” were available. “There’s emergency management assistance compact between states where we can move more guardsmen in,” he said. “The fact is that there are plenty of people on the ground.”
Counterspin: Gov. Schwarzenegger is having to ask other states to send some of their National Guard people to help fight the fires, because California is so stretched.
Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd say as much:
Governor Bill Richardson makes the connection between the California wildfires and the War in Iraq: Because our national guard is there, it isn't here responding to disasters.George Bush, his Republican friends and the Democrats who continue to allow this war to continue have not only broken our military, they've broken our National Guard.
And Sen. Dodd's statement:
"As you know, Governor Schwarzenegger has had to ask other states for help because so many of California's National Guard, who provide critical support to the citizens while you are fighting the fires, were deployed to Iraq. In a Dodd Administration, never again will our houses be on fire because our troops are taking fire in Iraq. Never again will our first responders be left without the support they need because our President failed to do what it took to keep our communities safe. That is why in 2008, nothing will be more important than leadership that can get results that make us stronger and more secure. That's the first responsibility of an American President."
Chris Dodd, unfortunately, will not be the Democratic nominee. He's too principled and too much of a leader to be the Democratic nominee.