With two Ventura County brush fires all but out Monday, state and federal officials turned their attention to disaster relief, opening an assistance center for victims of the Simi and Piru blazes.
Elsewhere in fire-ravaged Southern California, the body of Novato firefighter Steven Rucker was escorted in a solemn procession of fire engines in San Diego before being flown to Marin County, as the death toll from the Southland's fires rose by two to 22.
A continuing spate of cool, damp weather helped suppress the blazes, which were largely contained after blackening more than 740,000 acres of timber and brush and destroying more than 3,500 homes.
In Ventura County, nearly two dozen representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Small Business Administration and a host of other agencies began staffing the assistance center at 730 Paseo Camarillo in Camarillo. The center, one of nine set up throughout Southern California, will be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Financial aid is not directly provided at the centers; fire victims seeking such assistance must register with FEMA by calling (800) 621-3362.
However, representatives will answer questions about housing assistance, low-interest disaster loans and other support aimed at getting fire victims back on their feet. So far, FEMA has received 120 applications in Ventura County for disaster assistance.
"Unfortunately, we can't make people whole again -- the government can't afford to do that," said FEMA spokesman John Treanor, adding that the Ventura County center will stay open as long as necessary. "We just kind of want to start them on the way back to recovery."
Other groups and agencies have stepped forward to help victims of wildfires that consumed about 172,000 acres near Simi Valley and Fillmore and caused more than $20 million in damage. Those blazes destroyed 38 residences and damaged at least a dozen others.
The Ventura County assessor's office has announced that owners of property suffering more than $10,000 in fire damage may ask to defer payment of their next property tax installment and apply for reassessment of their properties within 12 months of the damage.
And the American Red Cross announced Monday that it had received enough pledges and donations -- about $5.9 million -- to take care of victims of the Southern California wildfires and asked that future contributions go to the organization's general Disaster Relief Fund.
In Ventura County, individuals, corporations and foundations pledged more than $600,000. Major donors turned out Monday at the Red Cross' local executive headquarters in Camarillo to present their contributions.
"Southern California is a remarkable place, and the generosity of our communities has been overwhelming," said Jason Smith, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Ventura County. "We've watched our neighbors come together in support of those who lost their homes or who were otherwise affected."
In the meantime, firefighters in Ventura County continued to monitor hot spots in the Piru blaze and conduct mop-up operations in the Simi fire. By Monday, more than 2,200 firefighters who had been working those fires had been sent home or reassigned.
The Simi fire was 100% contained after burning 107,568 acres from Santa Paula to northeast of the Ventura County line. And the Piru blaze was 85% contained Monday, as 126 firefighters continued working the fire lines.
As hot spots dissipated in the mountains of Ventura County, federal wildlife biologists got into the backcountry and checked on the California condors reintroduced there as part of a decade-long recovery program. All but one of the 41 birds were accounted for, said the biologists, who have equipped each bird with a radio transmitter.
"The condors seem to have weathered the firestorm and are back to business as usual," said Marc Weitzel, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
Cold and damp weather that moved in over the weekend became the firefighters' greatest ally in battling the blazes. But those conditions also made for some tricky operations.
Three firefighters assigned to the Piru blaze became stranded Sunday evening as they attempted to retrieve radio equipment from a remote mountain peak. The firefighters -- two from the U.S. Forest Service and the third with the California Department of Forestry -- had been flown by helicopter to snow-covered Cobblestone Peak deep in the Sespe Wilderness.
Minutes after the three were dropped off, the weather took a turn for the worse and cloud cover prevented the helicopter from returning. By 8 p.m., a Ventura County sheriff's rescue helicopter was sent to the area, and the crew was able to locate the firefighters using night vision goggles. That helicopter also was unable to land, so the firefighters had to be hoisted into the aircraft on tethers.
The firefighters were wet and cold, but otherwise uninjured.
"They were just happy to be off that cold mountain," said Joe Pasinato, a Forest Service spokesman.
Elsewhere in Southern California, thousands of residents returned to the fire areas Monday, some finding their homes still intact, others confronted by charred ruins. More than 27,000 people were still displaced. At the peak of the fires, more than 80,000 had been evacuated, said Carl Dewing, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.
The two new deaths were both attributed to heart attacks suffered during the blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains. Officials identified the victims only as a 54-year-old San Bernardino man who died Saturday and a Cedar Pines man who died Sunday. Because the fires in which they died are blamed on arson, anyone charged with setting the blazes also could be charged with murder, San Bernardino County prosecutors said.
Forty-six fire engines and hundreds of uniformed firefighters accompanied Rucker's body as it was carried in a hearse to Gillespie Field in San Diego.
"There's a tradition: No firefighter goes alone," said Janet Marshall, a spokeswoman for the state forestry department. "You don't leave a fallen comrade."
In keeping with that tradition, four officials from the Novato Fire District, including two men who were with Rucker when they were overtaken by flames Wednesday near Julian, accompanied the body as it was flown to Northern California.
Laurie Styler, who had been staying at a friend's house near Alpine when flames raged dangerously close, said she came to pay her respects.
"They saved my life. They saved a lot of people's lives," the 40-year-old nurse said.
El Cajon Fire Capt. Ken Oeland, 47, said it made no difference that few of those there on Monday had met Rucker.
"We all know him because he's one of us," Oeland said. "He gave the ultimate, and we're here to thank him for it. We know that some day we could very easily give our lives the same way he did."
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush will take a helicopter and walking tour of the San Diego County fire areas today. Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger have been invited to join the president, McClellan said.
The San Manuel and Morongo bands of Mission Indians announced Monday that they are donating $1 million apiece for fire victims in the city of San Bernardino, tribe members who lost homes in the fires and the Riverside chapter of the American Red Cross.
"We are reaching out to help our local neighbors at a time of need and a time of crisis," said Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel tribe, which operates the San Manuel Indian Bingo Reservation in San Bernardino County and lives on a reservation near Highland.
San Diego County
Department of Forestry officials predicted containment of the 280,000-acre Cedar Fire by this morning and containment of the 56,000-acre Paradise fire by Saturday. Together, the fires have destroyed more than 2,400 homes.
San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy called Monday for a municipal ordinance requiring fireproof roofs in all new construction and an increase in the city's brush-management effort.
"While we did an excellent job, we always can look at things we could do better," Murphy said.
Murphy praised the city's firefighters "for getting everything possible out of the resources we have," a reference to the city's history of lean budgets for the Fire Department.
City Councilman Jim Madaffer said he was not interested in listening to criticism by the county's Board of Supervisors on how the fires were fought.
"This fire should not be measured by what went wrong, but for the incredible successes," he said.
San Bernardino County
"I'm sad, 'cause it don't look like our mountains anymore," San Dahsells said. "It's all burned. It's all burned up."
Dahsells was one of thousands who returned to their homes in the San Bernardino Mountains on Monday, but the return wasn't easy.
First, residents had to queue up at the bottom of the mountains while sheriff's deputies checked their identifications to make sure they lived there.
Once cleared, they couldn't take Highway 18, the most direct route from Southern California's major urban centers to the resort communities in the mountains northeast of San Bernardino. Rockslides, downed trees and fallen power lines still blocked that route, so they had to go the long way, around through Cajon Pass and up from the Mojave Desert on Highway 138, a narrow, twisting road that was blanketed with fog and drenched with rain on Monday.
Many arrived for their first shocking view of homes that had burned to the ground. But for most, the overwhelming impressions were relief at finding their properties intact and queasiness from the stench of food that spoiled when the power was cut off more than a week ago.
Jim Olds said he was "celebrating the cleaning out of my refrigerator." Olds, 60, was one of the regulars who began trickling back into the Old Town Pub in Crestline. The bar served as a bunkhouse and staging area for firefighters at the height of the wildfires.
Olds said the smell at his house was pretty bad, "but I'm delighted to find that after a tense week, the neighborhood is intact and there are squirrels and birds in the trees."
Although residents were returning to Crestline and Big Bear, officials didn't let people back into Lake Arrowhead, Running Springs, Green Valley Lake, Cedar Glen, Crest Forest, Rimforest, Twin Peaks and Arrowbear because of the lack of power, water and telephone service.
Officials said that by nightfall the Old fire and Grand Prix fire in the San Bernardino Mountains were almost entirely contained after burning more than 150,000 acres and destroying more than 1,056 homes, commercial structures and outbuildings.
The San Bernardino County district attorney's office has filed felony charges against three suspected looters, officials said Monday.
Times staff writers Louis Sahagun and Eric Malnic contributed to this report.