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After the fires, houses become lonely outposts

Bonnie Chase stood in her driveway and gazed at the monstrous destruction of her neighborhood. Where 47 houses once stood, only hers and three others remained intact.

The rest of the houses in Palmer Canyon, in the foothills of the San Bernardino National Forest, were obliterated when a wall of fire struck early last Sunday, leaving the canyon barren, empty of life and sound.

"I miss my neighbors," Chase said Friday afternoon, apparently still stunned by what had happened. "I feel blessed and fortunate that my house was saved, but this place was more than houses and yards _ it was a community."

In neighborhoods across Southern California, thousands of houses have been destroyed in the past week as wildfires, some caused by arsonists, have descended from the woods. Some houses are spared, inexplicably, in the midst of the carnage, leaving some owners with a roof over their heads but without a single neighbor.

Now that the embers have cooled, residents have been returning, tentatively, to the canyon here. Most are trying to see if anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. For the few whose homes survived, the experience places them in an unsettling middle ground between relief and anguish.

"I don't know what to feel," said Joan Thompson, 69, Palmer Canyon's oldest resident and the one who has lived there the longest _ 39 years. Her house made it through the flames, although that of her son Scott, just up the road, did not.

"I felt like I'd just crawled out of a bomb shelter, like a bomb had dropped," she said, describing her return to the canyon. "All you saw was foundations and fireplaces. I don't know what I'd have done if mine had gone. I'm not one for apartment life."

Thompson, a native of Athol, Mass., whose husband, Howard, died of cancer seven years ago, was sweeping soot from her cement porch on Friday and clearing away burned tree branches from her sloped back yard.

The four houses that remain in Palmer Canyon, just north of Claremont, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, look like anomalies, suggesting that the immensely powerful fire had somehow failed to finish its job. While all around them is destruction, the houses _ two of them next to each other, the other two at opposite ends of the canyon _ look pristine, as though something special about them had ensured their salvation.

At several of the debris-filled properties on Friday afternoon, owners sifted through what little remained, and wondered whether they would or could rebuild. Several offered help to each other, even though they had been left with nothing themselves.

"When there are disasters, the community spirit kicks in," said Gretchen Butler. Her house is gone. On Friday, she cheerfully accepted condolences of neighbors, but her real emotions were well hidden.

"You should see me crying in the middle of the night," said Butler. "I'm so grateful for my dozen years here. Every day, when I came home from work, I'd feel like I was on vacation. The creek, the trees _ it was all perfect."

Wildfires report

Major California wildfires had spread across 749,319 acres by Friday, killed 20 people and destroyed more than 2,800 homes:

+ CAMP PENDLETON, San Diego County: No deaths, 9,000 acres. Started Oct. 21 on the Marine base, cause under investigation. Contained.

+ CEDAR FIRE, San Diego County: 14 people dead, 275,833 acres burned, 1,688 homes and 386 outbuildings destroyed. Death toll includes one firefighter. Started Oct. 25, apparently by lost hunter setting a signal fire. Air traffic nationwide was disrupted when flames forced evacuation of a Federal Aviation Administration control center. 65 percent contained.

+ DULZURA FIRE, San Diego County: No deaths, 46,291 acres burned, one home, five outbuildings and 11 structures damaged. Started Oct. 26, cause under investigation. Contained. Briefly burned across border into Tijuana, Mexico.

+ GRAND PRIX FIRE, San Bernardino County: No deaths, 52 homes destroyed, 91,207 acres. Started Oct. 21, blamed on arson. 85 percent contained.

+ MOUNTAIN FIRE, Riverside County: No deaths, 21 homes destroyed, 9,742 acres. Started Oct. 26, cause under investigation. Contained.

+ OLD FIRE, San Bernardino County: 4 people killed, 850 homes, 10 commercial buildings destroyed, 69,831 acres. Started Oct. 25, blamed on arson. 25 percent contained.

+ PADUA FIRE, Los Angeles County: No deaths, 59 homes destroyed, 10,466 acres. Separated from Grand Prix fire in San Bernardino County. 95 percent contained.

+ PARADISE FIRE, San Diego County: 2 people killed, 56,700 acres, 166 homes and 161 outbuildings destroyed. Started Oct. 26, cause under investigation. 30 percent contained.

+ PIRU FIRE, Ventura County: No deaths, one home, six outbuildings and one commercial property destroyed, 63,719 acres. Started Oct. 23, cause under investigation. 40 percent contained.

+ SIMI VALLEY, Ventura and Los Angeles counties: No deaths, 37 homes and 145 outbuildings destroyed, 107,590 acres. Started Oct. 25, cause under investigation. 70 percent contained.

+ VERDALE FIRE, Los Angeles County: No deaths, 8,680 acres. Started Oct. 24, blamed on arson. Contained.

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