With some of the worst wildfires dying down, many southern Californians lucky enough to find their homes still standing are likely to face hardships for weeks to come.
Power lines are down in many areas, and the smoke and ash could irritate people’s lungs for as long as the blazes keep burning.
Randy and Aimee Powers returned to Ramona, a mountain community in San Diego County, yesterday to find their home without electricity or water, after fire trucks drained the town’s reservoir.
“It’s better to be at home. We’re going to stick it out and do whatever we have to do up here to survive. We’ll make it through,” said Mr Powers.
Residents of 10,000 Ramona homes who called the water department when they found their water turned off were greeted by a recorded phone message that said: “We are in extreme water crisis situation. No water use is allowed.”
Thousands of people continued returning to their neighbourhoods as shelters across southern California began shutting down.
The largest, Qualcomm Stadium, which had housed 10,000 refugees at the height of the disaster, was being emptied out for tomorrow’s NFL football game between the San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans.
While the danger had eased considerably since the weekend, numerous fires were still burning out of control, and one in Orange County, near Los Angeles, triggered renewed efforts to evacuate residents yesterday.
In San Diego County, the area hardest hit, only one of five major fires was more than 50% contained.
In the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area of San Bernardino County, one of two fires that have destroyed more than 300 homes was 75% contained, while the other was only 20% contained.
A blaze in Orange County that blackened 27,000 acres (11,000 hectares) and destroyed 14 homes near Irvine was 35% contained, but it was sending up a massive plume of smoke in the afternoon.
The activity of the blaze led officials to try to enforce an existing mandatory evacuation order that was ignored by some residents of isolated Silverado Canyon, said Lynnette Round, an Orange County Fire Authority spokeswoman.
Authorities believe the blaze was deliberately set and asked for help finding a white truck seen in the area where the fire started.
In all, more than a dozen fires had raced across more than 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) – or 781 square miles (2,023 square kilometres) – by yesterday.
At least three people and possibly seven have been killed by flames. Seven others died of various causes after being evacuated.
About 1,700 homes have been destroyed, and damage has been put at more than a billion dollars in San Diego County alone.
Across Southern California, 71 firefighters and about 30 civilians have been injured.
One of five people who have been arrested on arson charges since the wildfires broke out pleaded not guilty yesterday. Police said witnesses spotted Catalino Pineda, 41, starting a fire on Wednesday on a San Fernando Valley hillside. He is not linked to one of the major blazes.
About 12,600 San Diego Gas and Electric customers remained without power and 675 were without natural gas, said utility spokeswoman April Bolduc.
The outages were mainly in hard-hit areas like Ramona, Rancho Bernardo, Fallbrook, Rancho San Diego and El Cajon.
Pollution control authorities across southern California warned that smoke and ash are making the air dangerous. People with heart or respiratory disease, the elderly and children in those areas were urged to remain indoors.
Some people, like Robert Sanders of Rancho Bernardo, had no homes to return to. The 56-year-old photographer came back to find his house reduced to a smouldering pile of rubble.
The fire-resistant box he kept his transparencies in was intact, but its contents were melted.
“I’ve lost my history,” Sanders said. “All the work I’ve done for the past 30 years, it’s all destroyed.”
At a news conference, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged it would take time to recover.
“It won’t be overnight, and it won’t be easy, but we won’t let up until southern California gets back to normal,” he said as he announced several relief measures.
Some fires continued to burn, but the weather was working in firefighters’ favour.
The sinister desert winds that gusted as high as 100 mph (160 kph) earlier in the week were gone and not expected to return any time soon.
Firefighters continued to battle dangerous blazes in many areas, including one that crested San Diego County’s 5,500-foot (1,675-metre) Palomar Mountain, site of the world-famous Palomar Observatory.
The observatory, operated by the California Institute of Technology and home to the world’s largest telescope when it was dedicated in 1948, did not appear to be in immediate danger, said observatory spokesman Scott Kardel.
To the southeast, a fire that had already destroyed more than 1,000 homes headed towards Julian.
The town of 3,000, in the rolling hills of an apple-growing region, was ordered evacuated.