Source AP ©

California evacuees turn back to their neighborhoods

Despite danger of fire is still actual in South California many return to their bare houses.

The football stadium where people sought refuge is closing as an evacuation center, marking a symbolic show of progress. Once sheltering more than 10,000 people, Qualcomm Stadium was home to just 350 on Friday morning. It was to close later in the day.

Thousands of people lost their homes this week to the wildfires that left an arc of destruction from Ventura County just north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

In all, fires raced across 490,000 acres (198,300 hectares), an area half the size of Rhode Island. They were fanned early in the week by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph (161 kph).

"I've lost my history," said Robert Sanders, a 56-year-old photographer who returned to a smoldering mound that once was his rented house in the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo.

Among the possessions he lost to the flames and withering heat were his transparencies, melted inside a fire-resistant box, and a photograph of his father.

"All the work I've done for the past 30 years, it's all destroyed," he said.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County. The property damage there alone has surpassed $1 billion (EUR700 million)

Officials have opened assistance centers in the hardest-hit communities, where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and even mental health counseling.

"The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that," San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. "The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people."

A show of the federal government's support came Thursday when President George W. Bush toured the fire-ravaged area with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bush pledged the government's cooperation.

"We want the people to know there's a better day ahead - that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life's going to be better," he said.

As the governor and president witnessed the devastation, the state came under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires' crucial first hours.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes sat idle as flames spread, grounded by government rules and bureaucracy.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry "fire spotters" who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made it too dangerous to fly.

Additionally, the National Guard's C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-standing retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.

"When you look at what's happened, it's disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that's put tens of thousands of people in danger," Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.

The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home.

Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.

Even as evacuees returned home and fire crews began mop-up duties in some areas, the wildfires continued to threaten homes in others.

An aerial assault was helping firefighters corral two blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, a thickly wooded resort area where 313 homes have been lost.