Small-business owners in Southern California started returning to their stores, offices, and homes this week, even as wildfires continued to rage in many areas for the fifth day.
President Bush, who has officially declared a state of emergency in the region and directed federal aid to local homeowners and businesses, flew over San Diego County with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday. Bush said the blaze had caused "terrible devastation."
The prompt disaster declaration makes low-interest federal disaster loans of up to $1.5 million immediately available to local business owners to help cover the costs of property and economic damages caused by the blaze, a spokesperson for the Small Business Administration said.
"The fires are still burning down there, so it's too early to gauge the full impact," said Carol Chastang of the agency's disaster office.
The fires, which started over the weekend, had spread to over 400,000 acres by mid-week and displaced more than one million people, who were fleeing to nearby hotels, campgrounds, and other emergency shelters. So far, at least eight deaths have been blamed on the fire.
"While the economic impact of these fires is yet to be determined, we know there are already huge costs in terms of human suffering," California Chamber of Commerce President Allen Zaremberg said in a statement. "It will take months, perhaps years, to rebuild," he said.
Zaremberg called the fires devastating to the people and businesses in the region and encouraged local business owners to "show leadership in this time of crisis and contribute to assists fire victims and their families."
Since Sunday, as many as 2,000 homes and several hundred businesses have been destroyed in the blaze, which was stoked by high winds and a record-low rainfall in the region. There are some 3.2 million small businesses in California, employing more than half of the state's private-sector workforce, according to the SBA Office of Advocacy.
This week, the state deployed 1,500 national guards to join firefighting and rescue efforts, which already include more than 300 fire engines, air tankers, and bulldozers.
The president's disaster declaration covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, according to the SBA.
"Once local recovery facilities are identified in the declared areas, SBA officials will provide one-on-one assistance to disaster loan applicants," agency administrator Steven Preston said in a statement.
On Thursday, firefighters said dry gusty winds that had been driving the flames were dying down, though offshore breezes were picking up.