As firefighters continued to gain control of wildfires smoldering across Southern California, residents of the once-threatened mountain communities around Big Bear Lake trickled home Sunday, stocking up on groceries, unpacking heirlooms from crammed SUVs and finding, to their relief, that their homes and neighborhoods had not been harmed.
"We got so lucky up here," said nurse's aide Julie Eberhard, 45. "I thought the whole mountain was going to go up."
But in San Diego County, where more than 2,400 houses have been lost to the Paradise and Cedar fires, residents tried to come to grips with a more sobering reality.
At St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Scripps Ranch, where 345 homes were destroyed, 1,300 people crowded into an emotional 9 a.m. Mass. The parishioners donated $14,000 in cash and checks toward the church's relief effort for fire victims.
"The response was incredible," said Father James Poulsen, who delivered a sermon that he composed while looking out at the charred remains of his own backyard fence. "People hung around for the longest time. People were reluctant to go home."
The region's cool, moist weather continued to dull the force of the wildfires that have raged in five counties over the last week, killing 20 people, destroying thousands of buildings and displacing countless Southern California residents.
In the popular ski and vacation areas around Big Bear Lake, evidence of the fires, which were bearing down fast on the communities Wednesday, was hardly evident, save for the throngs of firefighters on the streets and water-dropping helicopters that occasionally buzzed in the cloudy skies on their way to a nearby refueling stop.
"It's just great to be back and unpacking everything," said Fawnskin resident Mike Drysdale, who had driven back to town with his girlfriend after being evacuated Wednesday. "We're just really happy everything turned out OK."
A few miles to the west, however, firefighters around Lake Arrowhead and Crestline were still struggling to get control of the last remnants of the Old fire. An evacuation order remained in effect for much of that area, forcing some residents to continue to wait it out in nearby shelters.
Some people said they were not in a hurry to get back because authorities had told them their homes had no electricity.
"It's hard being here," said Leah Christensen, 56, who lives in the community of Blue Jay, near Lake Arrowhead, but has been staying at a shelter at San Bernardino International Airport. "But why go home if you can't survive up there? I'd like to go home when it's safe, when the power has been restored."
Another woman at the shelter, Pepper Oberg, 59, of Crestline, had already learned that her house had been destroyed by the fire. She and her family have rented a house in San Bernardino. "I feel bad, in a way, not being able to go home," she said. "But I thank God for those [who] have something to go home to."
Though much of the immediate danger in the region has receded with the onset of cool weather, officials said much difficult work remains.
Firefighters who have surrounded the massive fires with hoses and unburnable plow lines now face the "dirty, gritty, mano-a-mano job" of extinguishing smoldering patches on the edge of the blazes that could still breach the newly established perimeters, said Bernie Pineda, a spokesman for the joint command fighting the San Bernardino County fires.
And the work is still dangerous. A firefighter near California 18 north of San Bernardino was injured by a falling tree. He was evacuated by helicopter and was in stable condition at a nearby hospital, said Mike Davidson, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry.
San Bernardino County
Typically, the communities around Big Bear Lake, which are home to about 20,000 full-time residents, would be rather sleepy on a Sunday morning before the winter ski season, which has been one of the area's main attraction for visitors for nearly a century.
But things were often eerily quiet this Sunday. At times, it seemed the only vehicles on the road were police cars, firetrucks and news vans.
In the quaint, Alpine-style village frequented by tourists, the movie theater, souvenir shops and ski outfitters were closed. Some mini-mall parking lots were deceptively crowded with cars, RVs and trailers that had been parked there by evacuees. As a steady stream of residents made their way back up the mountain, they seemed to stay in their houses, unpacking and taking stock.
But there were signs of life. The Stater Bros. grocery store was doing a brisk business by lunchtime. The Bear Mountain ski resort had even turned on its snow-making machines.
In the nearby cabin-studded community of Fawnskin, the only smoke smell came from the chimneys of newly returned residents, who were using their fireplaces to warm up because gas service had not been restored.
Four days after issuing mandatory evacuations of the Big Bear Lake area, officials reopened the two main routes into the area, California 18 and 38, giving evacuated residents access to the communities of Big Bear City, Big Bear Lake, Fawnskin, Moonridge, Sugarloaf and Woodlands.
The Old fire, which has burned 91,281 acres of woodlands, was 72% contained as of Sunday afternoon, and firefighters were still working to carve about 31 miles of needed firebreak. The 59,448-acre Grand Prix fire was expected to be fully contained by Sunday night.
After most of the danger had passed Big Bear by Saturday night, authorities began letting grocery store and gas station owners return to town so residents would have some basic services when they returned.
On Sunday, a steady caravan of SUVs, pickup trucks and Forest Service vehicles, plus the occasional U-Haul trailer full of evacuated possessions, chugged up the mountain toward home.
JoAnn Holm got back home with her teenage daughter, Brittany, about 11 a.m. "We are awfully glad to get home," she said. "We just wanted to get up here as quickly as possible."
Holm retired as a social worker three months ago and moved to the mountains from Santa Monica. She said her modest, log cabin-style house a mile down the hill from Bear Mountain ski runs was her dream house.
At Lippy's Country Mart, Jun Ansok arrived about 9:30 a.m. to vacuum and clean to get ready for business today. But visitors kept trickling in, asking for daily necessities -- milk, water, cigarettes.
Rick Tubangi, who handles distribution for the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper, drove around town putting papers in boxes, the first news to arrive in days. Tubangi never left town, and his boss, who happens to live in Big Bear, got through the checkpoint with a truck full of papers. "This was a fluke, we almost didn't get here," Tubangi said. "It was really eerie. It just felt like the Twilight Zone. There was nobody here."
Rick Jaegger, manager of Stater Bros. grocery store, was one of the few residents to stay throughout the evacuation. He kept his doors open to firefighters, who bought their food directly off of pallets, because there were no clerks to help them.
On Sunday, Jaegger's full staff had returned, and was busy catering to the residents.
Combing the aisles for staples was Big Bear ski resort worker Thomas Maker, 19, who had just returned from a four-night stay at a Red Cross shelter in Apple Valley.
"It was a little bit uncomfortable sleeping in a gym," he said. "We wanted to get back here, take hot showers -- just come home."
The relief also was palpable at the Golden Pan Cafe, a cozy, lodge-style eatery that is a favorite among locals in Fawnskin.
Barbara Aker, who has owned the cafe for 35 years, had been forced to evacuate Wednesday afternoon while she was whipping up a mountain of food for firefighters. When a sheriff's deputy came by and ordered her out, she told him, "I have 40 sandwiches going. I have a pot roast in the oven. I can't leave!"
The deputy prevailed. A few minutes later, Aker and her assistant were heading to the safety of Lucerne, to the northeast. Before she left, she gave firefighters a key to the kitchen, telling them to help themselves to the food. She locked the liquor from the bar in the ladies' room.
On Sunday, the liquor was still locked away, but Aker had bacon, eggs and pancakes on the griddle. She was planning a ribeye roast, potatoes and vegetables for dinner. Before noon, a few regulars had cracked open beers and were watching the news. "I knew we were going to be OK [because] I was talking to the Fire Department daily," Aker said. "I wanted to be able to get back here because I knew those firemen had to eat."
San Diego County
With readings from the Torah, the Koran and the New Testament, religious leaders at an interfaith service at the First United Methodist Church of San Diego offered prayers for those killed by the fires and those who lost their homes and businesses.
Bishop George McKinney, pastor of St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ, said the fires are proof that "there is so much of life that is beyond our control and beyond our understanding."
Imam Sharif Battikhi, president of the American Islamic Services Foundation, asked Allah to "keep our city under your protection ... and spread your peace all over the world."
Rabbi Laurie Coskey, director of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, reading from Genesis, said that those who have been hurt by the fire will now "go forth" to rebuild their lives with help from the community. In the end, she said, the community and the lives of those who have survived the fire will be stronger because of the crisis they have endured together.
The service attracted numerous public officials. "All of us have had our faith tested this past week," said county Supervisor Greg Cox.
The California Department of Forestry revised its estimate of when the Paradise fire -- one of the two fires that ravaged San Diego County -- will be contained, saying that should happen Tuesday night.
The estimated containment time for the Cedar fire, the most destructive fire in county history, remained 6 p.m. today. More than 7,100 firefighters continued to fight the two fires.
A steady stream of horse owners with trailers arrived at the Del Mar Fairgrounds to retrieve their animals. At the height of the fires, more than 800 horses were brought to the fairgrounds, along with goats and other farm animals.
The California Highway Patrol reopened California 78 and 79, where the Cedar fire had destroyed numerous homes. But California 76 between Palomar Mountain and Lake Henshaw remained closed except for residents.
Officials announced measures meant to help those whose homes or businesses were destroyed or damaged. The Department of Agriculture will provide emergency food stamps for fire victims. The county Parks and Recreation Department will waive the rule limiting campers in county parks to staying only two weeks.
Libraries in Descanso, Julian and Pine Valley, areas that were evacuated, will reopen. Late fees on books will be negotiated on a "book-by-book" basis, officials said. After a week's closure, schools will reopen today.
More than 2,200 firefighters had either been sent home or dispatched elsewhere after containing wildfires that scorched approximately 172,000 acres near Simi Valley and Fillmore.
A team of wildlife biologists, botanists, archeologists and soil scientists is scheduled to begin work today to determine how much the 64,000-acre Piru fire damaged areas of Los Padres National Forest.
About 1,000 firefighters have been released from the Piru fire, while about 120 continue to monitor smoldering hot spots. Fire and forestry officials were disbanding their command post after the 107,568-acre Simi fire was fully contained Saturday night.
Times staff writers Richard Fausset, Tracy Wilson, Tony Perry and Elizabeth Douglass contributed to this report.