Reward of $150,000 offered to find California arsonists

Last updated at 11:27 29 October 2007

Rewards totalling $150,000 (£75,000) have been offered for information leading to the arsonists who started at least two of the deadly fires raging in southern California.

The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were today investigating the fires as the death toll from arson reached three.

The charred remains of several other homeowners and evacuees have been found, bringing the total number of deaths to at least 12.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a $50,000 reward on top of the $50,000 offered by both the FBI and ATF.

Angry fire chiefs today said lives could have been saved if firefighters were not dealing with the result of arsonists' work.

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Chip Prather, chief of the fire authority in California's Orange County where 23,000 acres have been burned in the Santiago fire, said: "I wonder, frankly, if we didn't have this arson-caused fire here, how many of our resources might have been available to respond to other parts of the state, and how many people might be alive today had our firefighters here been able to be in San Diego."

In Los Angeles, police arrested a man after witnesses said they saw him lighting a fire on a hillside. Authorities said Catalino Pineda, 41, was seen starting a fire in the San Fernando Valley on Wednesday and then walking away.

As fire crews used a break in the weather to bring most of the fires under control yesterday, President George Bush surveyed the devastation and met some of the estimated 500,000 people who fled their homes.

Mr Bush flew over San Diego - one of the worst-hit areas - with Mr Schwarzenegger and visited burnt out neighbourhoods.

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"There's no question a lot of people are suffering, and there's no question there's been terrible losses," Mr Bush said.

About 2,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged since Sunday, when wildfires began breaking out.

"These fires are among the worst disasters in California history," MrSchwarzenegger said.

A suspected arsonist was shot dead by police as FBI agents revealed several of the fires that have forced one million people from their homes in southern California had been started deliberately.

The news came as two burned bodies were found in a San Diego area home, bringing the death toll in California's five days of wildfires up to at least eight, officials said today.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said the bodies were found in Poway, a town engulfed by the big Witch fire in the northern part of the county, and had not yet been identified.

One death from the wildfires was reported in southern San Diego on Sunday.

At least five other people, mostly senior citizens, have died in the evacuation of half a million people, the largest in California's modern history.

Police said officers killed a man, a suspected arsonist, during a chase as he tried to escape when challenged in the city of San Bernardino.

A motorcyclist who police say set a small fire in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains was arrested but investigators said they did not know whether he was connected to any of the larger fires.

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la smog california fires

FBI agents confirmed that a huge fire in the town of Santiago in Orange County that destroyed 10 homes was started on purpose in two different places.

A £35,000 reward was offered for information to trace the arsonists today as a break in the weather finally allowed firefighters to make progress after virtually conceding defeat to the series of wildfires that have been fanned by fierce winds.

President Bush arrived in California after declaring the country's worst nightmare since Hurricane Katrina a "major disaster".

Insurance companies estimated that property worth more than £600 million has been destroyed in four days of fires.

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la smog california fires

More than 1,500 homes and more than 700 square miles of land have been scorched across five counties, from Ventura in the north all the way down to Mexico. The office of emergency services said 28,000 homes were still threatened.

Many residents along the coastline from Malibu to San Diego, through the inland canyons to the mountain playgrounds of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, returned home last night to find just burning rubble.

Thousands more waited anxiously in makeshift evacuation camps, not knowing if they had lost everything they own.

The improving weather has allowed for a greater aerial assault on the flames with helicopters and air tankers dropping tons of water.

Just one death has been directly attributed to the fires, a man who refused to leave his home, although six others died during the evacuations and about 50 people have been injured, including 20 firefighters.