The worn-out firefighters and residents on the fourth day of wildfires were anticipating Wednesday the weakening of the wind.
Forecasters said the Santa Ana wind whipping across Southern California will begin to weaken late Wednesday afternoon, followed by cooling sea breezes. The 16 wind-fed wildfires have destroyed nearly 1,300 homes and forced a half-million people to flee.
The shift could allow for a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during a tour of an evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
"If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide," he said.
Crews were anticipating an injection of additional firefighters and equipment from other states, mostly throughout the West. Frustration over the firefighting effort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.
Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters' lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.
"It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire," he said.
The fires have burned 410,000 acres (165,925 hectares), causing at least $100 million (Ђ70 million) in damage. Twenty-one firefighters and at least 24 others have been injured. One person was killed by the flames, and the San Diego medical examiner's officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.
The state's top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability of firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state's nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Grijalva said the fires, spread by winds that at times topped 100 mph (160 kph), would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABC News reporter, and praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.
"Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain because there's a bunch of nonsense," he said. "The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here _ we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government _ and they can't fly because of the wind situation."
Thousands of people packed evacuation centers, where many had an agonizing wait to find out whether their homes had survived. At the Del Mar Fairgrounds in northern San Diego County, which was converted into a shelter, many stared at television sets blaring reports from the fire lines and damaged neighborhoods.
"I've got two reports: One person told me it's gone, and one person said it's still there," said J.C. Playford, who left his home in San Diego County. "So I have no idea."
Some knew their homes were destroyed. Mike and Tere Miller of Rancho Bernardo were able to return Tuesday. They had left frantically when they realized flames were approaching, stopping only to drag their dog out the door and awaken a handicapped neighbor. When they came back, they kept looking for their home _ and never saw it.
"It was just a smoldering pile of nothing," Mike Miller told NBC's "Today."
Evacuation orders continued Wednesday in San Diego County. The fire also closed Interstate 5 and the Metrolink commuter rail, snagging the morning commute.
So far, the fires have inflicted the worst damage in San Diego County, where five blazes continued to burn. The largest fire had consumed 196,420 acres (79,490 hectares), destroying 650 homes, businesses and other buildings. Other hard-hit areas included San Bernardino County, where hundreds of homes burned in the mountain resort communities near Lake Arrowhead.