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California

Residents return to rubble as fire crews make progress on San Diego and Los Angeles wildfires

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Geoffrey Smith surveyed the loss of his home on Wrightwood Road in Bonsall, Calif.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Geoffrey Smith heard it first from his neighbors: The wind-driven wildfire that swept through northern San Diego County had devoured his Bonsall home.

As he headed to his neighborhood over the weekend to see the destruction, the 70-year-old veterinarian’s mind drifted to what he likely lost.

A cherry wood cabinet he was making for his daughter in the barn out back. His family photos. Mementos grateful clients had given him. His wedding ring, which he’d taken off because his finger was swollen. A Bible his wife, Diana, gave him when they got married.

“Today is our 27th wedding anniversary,” he said Saturday, his eyes welling up with tears. They raised four kids in that home. “It had views to die for.”

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All that was left was a pile of rubble. Soot-covered terracotta planters sat among heaps of ash and debris, as well as charred metal that had been furniture.

The destructive Lilac fire, which ignited Thursday near the intersection of State Route 76 and Interstate 15, scorched 4,100 acres and destroyed more than 150 structures, including homes and farm outbuildings. An additional 56 structures were damaged and 1,500 more were at risk, authorities said Sunday evening.

While residents reeled from the devastation, fire crews from San Diego to Los Angeles gained the upper hand on a series of wildfires fed during the last week by powerful Santa Ana winds. By Sunday evening, the Lilac fire, the cause of which is under investigation, was 75% contained and evacuation orders were lifted for large swaths of Bonsall and Fallbrook.

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“Turning a corner would be a good way to put it,” said Capt. Jon Heggie of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It didn’t grow at all today.”

Some 130 miles north, firefighters increased containment Sunday evening on three wildfires that ripped through communities in Los Angeles County.

All residents displaced by the Skirball fire — which scorched 422 acres, destroyed six structures and damaged another 12 — were allowed to return home. The blaze that tore through the exclusive Bel-Air neighborhood was 85% contained.

The 6,049-acre Rye fire in Santa Clarita was 93% contained Sunday evening, while the 15,619-acre Creek fire in Sylmar was 95% contained.

Though winds calmed down Sunday, firefighters remained on high alert due to bone dry weather. A red flag warning, indicating extreme fire danger, was extended until Monday evening across much of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, according to the National Weather Service.

A similar warning in San Diego County expired at 8 p.m. Sunday. There, signs thanking firefighters were placed up and down West Lilac Road, where the fire swept through avocado groves and farms in the initial hours of the blaze.

Live updates: Track key details of all the major fires in Southern California »

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A handful of Smith’s neighbors on the hilly Wrightwood Road in Bonsall also lost their homes. Some said they felt grateful to be alive.

“I was going to have to put in new kitchen cabinets and counters pretty soon,” said Mike Hulsizer, who lost his four-bedroom home. “I probably saved myself $20,000 right there.”

His 1949 Oldsmobile, a restoration project he inherited from a friend who died of cancer, was nearly finished after five years of work. It was gone, along with his Osprey Pilothouse boat.

Somehow, his chicken, Ole Red, rode out the fire in a coop, which was littered with ash. His wife’s garden was also relatively unscathed, a zucchini plant and bird feeder still intact.

“We’re going to rebuild,” Hulsizer said. “I believe something good will come out of this.”

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union Tribune.

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AleneTchek

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