Residents return home as wildfires ease

A second group of residents forced to flee their houses by Southern California’s wildfires were being allowed to return home today.

A second group of residents forced to flee their houses by Southern California’s wildfires were being allowed to return home today.

A weekend of cooler, calmer weather has helped firefighters begin to bring the fires under control.

As the threat started to recede, authorities also began to make plans today to send home some of the thousands of firefighters battling blazes from San Diego County to the suburbs of Los Angeles.

Some evacuees were given the go-ahead yesterday to check on their homes. Among them were JoDee Ewing and her husband, Steve, who found little standing of their 1920s-era house but the stone chimney, the foundation and their rose bushes.

“I still have roses blooming,” said Ewing, 40. “But there’s no toilets. They disintegrated.”

The fire that started on October 25 on the edge of the San Bernadino National Forest has so far consumed 91,285 acres. In the last week, that blaze, plus half-a-dozen others across Southern California, have burned about 750,000 acres, destroying nearly 3,400 homes and killing 20 people.

In San Bernardino County, some firefighters were beginning to head home, said US Forest Service spokesman Bob Narus. In San Diego County, firefighters were expected to begin leaving after spending a few hours resting, said California Department of Forestry spokeswoman Barbara Daskoski.

Although fog, lower temperatures and even snow helped to slow the spreading flames, more than 12,000 firefighters were still on duty early today.

The fire that destroyed the Ewings’ house was finally put out yesterday, and firefighters allowed them and other homeowners to survey the damage. Residents of nearby Big Bear Valley were given the go-ahead to return this morning.

Authorities say an arsonist started that particular fire, but despite a reward of around €110,000 and the distribution of a composite sketch, the arsonist has not been caught.

Firefighters across the region took advantage of the weather to build firebreaks near communities that could be threatened again next week with the expected return of hot Santa Ana winds.

Firefighters burned piles of dead trees and dry brush near the small community of Sugarloaf.

The current weather has also brought drawbacks. Snow and rain that fell overnight on Friday caused a mud and rock slide that closed Highway 18, a major road in the area. Several trees also fell after being weakened by fire and a previous infestation of bark beetles.

One firefighter, part of a team cutting down burnt trees, suffered a broken arm and leg when a large branch fell on him.

In San Diego County, the 281,000-acre Cedar Fire – the largest individual blaze in California history – was 90% under control after burning for six days in the mountains northeast of San Diego.

In all, six fires were still burning across four California counties.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who visited a relief centre in Claremont on Saturday, said he was unsure if the nation had ever seen such destructive wildfires. The major blazes alone have cost more than €58m to fight.

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