Firefighters optimistic but cautious

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

The series of firestorms that laid siege to large swaths of Southern California over the last week had been mostly tamed by Sunday, as residents turned to worship and cleanup, and firefighters appeared to be corralling the few remaining blazes.

Evacuation orders throughout the region had largely been lifted by noon Sunday. In the seven Southern California counties affected by the fires, 1,454 people remained in public shelters that had held well over 20,000 only days before.

By nightfall, three more fires had been contained, and firefighters said they had all but contained one more.

Optimism over improving conditions was tinged, nonetheless, with caution: Three fires were only two-thirds to three-fourths contained by Sunday night, and 2,007 homes had been lost.

“We’ve turned a corner here,” said Frank McCarton, chief deputy director in the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “But we have a long road for recovery, and we need to focus on that now.”

Throughout the region, fire victims and their neighbors turned to the job of recovery, some starting with spiritual renewal as congregants of Malibu Presbyterian Church gathered Sunday at the Malibu Performing Arts Center -- down the hill from where their 50-year-old church lay in ruins -- and a small group of evacuees took part in services at Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, which is being used as a shelter.

At Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Chargers fans filled the stands where fire victims had sat only days before.

In neighborhoods throughout the region, residents ventured home, some finding little more than ashes and others learning to their amazement that their precious belongings had been spared.

“We are on to the recovery stage,” said Michelle Sheffler, 41, who lost her home in San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo community. “I see people moving forward.”

Still, firefighters and others cautioned that the long battle was not yet over. The Santiago fire in Orange County was 65% contained as of Sunday night and was not expected to be fully surrounded until Friday. The Harris fire in San Diego County was 70% contained and was expected to be encircled by Wednesday.

It will take months or even years to rebuild the homes, businesses and the Malibu church that succumbed to the 35 fires that swept through seven counties.

Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that if high winds return, the fires could flare up again.

“We definitely are closing in on it,” he said. “The bulk of the fires are fully contained or near containment, unless we get some adverse weather to kick us back into active fire.”

The most destructive of the blazes, San Diego County’s Witch fire, had been 90% contained -- after destroying 1,040 homes and 30 businesses and killing two people.

The Rice fire near Fallbrook -- 206 homes destroyed -- and the Horno/Ammo fire at Camp Pendleton were fully contained Sunday, officials said, as was the Ranch fire in northern Los Angeles County -- the first of the fires.

Similarly, San Bernardino County’s Grass Valley fire, which claimed 174 homes, and Slide fire, which took 200 homes, were nearing total containment.

More work

Significant work remained to gain control of the Santiago fire in eastern Orange County and the Poomacha fire in northeastern San Diego County. But both were more than 50% contained and neither posed an immediate threat to homes or businesses.

The series of blazes, which once stretched from Ventura County to south of the U.S.-Mexico border, will go down as among the most destructive in recent California history. The fires destroyed 2,813 structures. They charred 518,489 acres -- an area more than double the size of New York City -- while killing seven people and injuring 113 firefighters and 26 civilians.

Only two recent fire disasters have taken a heavier toll: the 2003 firestorm that destroyed 3,500 homes while striking many of the same mountain communities and the 1991 Oakland hills fire, which took about 3,000 homes.

Most fire victims had returned home by Sunday. Red Cross officials announced that they had closed 14 of 20 shelters.

The number of evacuees housed in public shelters throughout the seven-county region had dipped to 1,454, said Greg Renick, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services.

Symbolic of the shift was San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, which last week had housed up to 13,000 of the displaced, but which Sunday again became the home of professional football’s San Diego Chargers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the game with the coin flip and then thanked the emergency workers in attendance.

Firefighters led the hometown Chargers onto the field, where they proceeded to drub the Houston Texans, 35-10.

During the game, Schwarzenegger went to the private box of Chargers owner Dean Spanos to phone President Bush, according to a spokesman.

The governor reportedly thanked the president for coming to California to tour fire-ravaged areas, but then repeatedly stressed the importance of “follow-through” on the part of the federal government.

Fans were in a celebratory mood. At tailgate parties on the stadium grounds, fans enjoyed the smell of barbecue -- even if it was mixed with the lingering odor of burning brush. They toted signs -- “Can’t Burn our Spirit” and “Thank you, First Responders, God Bless” -- and lustily cheered the many emergency workers who attended the game.

“It’s awesome,” said Angel Gomez, 38, of Rancho Penasquitos, who watched the game at the Del Mar fairgrounds shelter. “What else do we have to bring everyone together except the Chargers, the firefighters and the great community?”

The army of personnel and equipment brought to Southern California during the onslaught is only now on the verge of returning to home bases as far away as Seattle and New Mexico. As of Sunday, 13,135 firefighters and other emergency workers remained in the field, staffing 1,477 engines.

Nearly 2,000 of the firefighters continued to battle the Santiago fire in the extremely dense brush of the Cleveland National Forest.

Crews used 18 bulldozers, as well as hand tools, as they began cutting 10 miles of new firebreak around a blaze that had blackened more than 28,000 acres. It was 65% contained late Sunday.

Eight air tankers and 13 helicopters aided the ground crews.

“It’s a contingency plan,” said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Stephen Miller, “in case things go south on us.”

Humidity climbing

Gone, however, were the low humidity and wind gusts of 70 miles per hour and more that bedeviled mountain and canyon areas last week. The National Weather Service said that humidity could climb as high as 70% in coming days and that a bit of drizzle could even fall on the region.

The forecast for next weekend looks more problematic, with the return of gusty winds, but probably not as strong as those that pushed the fires beyond control.

The decreasing threat meant that many San Bernardino Mountain communities reopened Sunday, including Twin Peaks, Rimforest, Blue Jay, Agua Fria, Deer Lodge Park, Sky Forest and Cedar Glen.

Dawn King, 52, upon returning with her husband, Kent, 46, to the second home they have been renovating in Rimforest, was overjoyed that “we never saw one bit of charring of anything. There wasn’t even a smell of smoke. It was like nothing ever happened. I thought, ‘Thank God, everything is OK. Thank God.’ ”

But others -- including San Bernardino County residents and people who live near the Santiago fire -- would have to wait until today, at the earliest, to get permission to go back home.

Orange County officials said they had to complete assessments before they would give the “all clear” for Silverado Canyon, with its 750 homes and surrounding neighborhoods.

Amid the progress, people tried to deal with the trauma of the last week.

Congregants of Malibu Presbyterian Church, undaunted by last week’s Canyon fire that destroyed their house of worship, gathered Sunday at the Malibu Performing Arts Center.

“It feels good to be back, but it’s not the place we’re used to,” the Rev. Greg Hughes said as he prepared to lead the service.

Before the service, Mike Rupp, 46, tiptoed through the charred remains of the old church, near Pepperdine University.

Rupp said he was married in the church and his two children were baptized there.

“This was a really cool place, and it will be again,” Rupp said.

Times staff writers Kevin Baxter, Helene Elliott, Duke Helfand, Tony Perry, Michael Rothfield, Jeff Rabin, Stuart Silverstein, Mike Anton and Michael Muskal contributed to this report.

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