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As fires dwindle, weary crews head home

Thousands of exhausted firefighters who rushed into Southern California from across the state this week to battle raging wildfires got orders on Saturday to pack up and prepare to return home.

State and federal officials said the fires had largely burned themselves out or been corralled into manageable zones by midday Saturday, allowing officials to draw down the firefighting force.

At the peak of the blazes, more than 14,000 firefighters from across California and several other Western states were deployed over hundreds of miles around Los Angeles and into San Diego County as far south as the Mexican border.

At one point, a dozen fires were burning out of control, fed by Santa Ana winds and fueled by hundreds of thousands of acres of drought-stricken trees and shrubs. The blazes have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 3,300 homes and burned about 750,000 acres. More than 100,000 residents were evacuated and several thousand still remain in shelters.

Some residents of the San Bernardino Mountain areas of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear were told Saturday that they would not be allowed to return home for several days because many areas still lacked power and roads were treacherous from snow and ice on Friday night.

But it appeared on Saturday that the worst had passed.

"The weather has been very, very good to us over the last 24 hours," said Mike McGroarty, deputy chief for fire operations at the State Office of Emergency Services. "The fires have pretty much slowed, and some fires have stopped."

Rain fell on much of the region on Friday and several inches of snow dropped on fire-scorched areas of the San Bernardino Mountains, east of Los Angeles. McGroarty said the break in the weather prompted the demobilization of fire crews, many of whom would be heading home in the next several days.

Martin Esparza, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service who was assigned to the San Bernardino National Forest fire, said that crews were still searching out hot spots and consolidating protective lines around the mountain communities of Big Bear, Running Springs and Lake Arrowhead. But he predicted that the blaze, known as the Old Fire, would be fully contained by the middle or end of next week. It was rated as 45 percent contained on Saturday, up from 25 percent on Friday.

He said many firefighters came down from the mountains Friday night to escape snow and ice and to get rest. He said many of the fire engines, borrowed from city and suburban fire departments, could not handle slippery mountain roads.

"There is a lull in the fire right now," Esparza said. "Crews are now focusing on islands of unburned vegetation."

In San Diego County, the devastating Cedar fire was rated as 81 percent contained, and there was very little activity overnight, Shirley Peace of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in San Diego said.

She said officials projected that the Cedar fire _ the largest single wildfire in recorded state history _ would be fully contained by Monday.

The fires, day by day

OCT. 21:

12:01 p.m.: Roblar 2 Fire starts at Camp Pendleton near San Diego County community of Fallbrook.

2:22 p.m.: Grand Prix fire starts near Fontana in San Bernardino County.

4:11 p.m.: Pass Fire starts in Riverside County's Reche Canyon.

OCT. 23:

1:30 p.m.: Piru Fire starts west of Lake Piru in Ventura County.

OCT. 25:

9:17 a.m.: Old Fire starts in foothills of San Bernardino Mountains.

2:15 p.m.: Simi Valley Fire starts near Los Angeles County and Ventura County line.

5:37 p.m.: Cedar Fire starts in San Diego County after lost hunter reportedly sets signal fire.

OCT. 26:

1:30 a.m.: Paradise Fire starts in San Diego County near Valley Center.

11:45 a.m.: Mountain Fire starts in Riverside County in Sage area.

1 p.m.: Mine Fire starts in San Diego County near Otay Mountain.

Old Fire, Grand Prix fire merge.

OCT. 28:

Most homes are destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 in San Diego County.

OCT. 29:

Fire sweeps through Cedar Glen, eventually destroying estimated 350 homes in San Bernardino Mountains.

Firefighter Steve Rucker killed when fast-moving wall of flames in San Diego County overtakes his four-man crew. Death toll from the fires reaches 20.

OCT. 30:

Temperatures drop and light rain falls, helping firefighters, but wind gusts continue.

OCT. 31:

Firefighters begin cutting 30 miles of fire line around resort community of Big Bear Lake.

NOV. 1:

Six major wildfires still burning in Southern California.

_ ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wildfire deaths

Twenty confirmed deaths have been blamed on California's wildfires.

CEDAR FIRE (SAN DIEGO COUNTY):

Galen Blacklidge, 50, Lakeside. Died Oct. 26 while trying to escape in her vehicle near Wildcat Canyon Road.

Stephen Shacklett, 55, died Oct. 26 while trying to escape in a motorhome on Muth Valley Road.

Gary Edward Downs, 50, died Oct. 26 while trying to escape flames on Wildcat Canyon Road.

James K. Shohara, 63, his wife Solange Shohara, 58, and their son Randy Shohara, 32, died Oct. 26 while trying to escape from their home.

John Leonard Pack, 28, and his wife Quynh Yen Cahu Pack, 28, died Oct. 26 while trying to escape from their home on Wildcat Canyon Road.

Ralph Westly, 77, found dead on Wildcat Canyon Road.

A woman who died Oct. 26 near Barona Indian Reservation, tentatively identified as Mary Lynne Peace, 54.

Two people who died Oct. 26 in the area of the Barona Indian Reservation; identified in published reports as Robin Sloan, 45, and her daughter, Jennifer Sloan, 17.

Christy-Anne Seiler Davis, 42, died Oct. 26 at her home on Vista Viejas Road in Alpine.

Steven Rucker, 38, a firefighter from Novato killed Oct. 29 while trying to save a home near Wynola.

PARADISE FIRE (SAN DIEGO COUNTY):

Nancy Morphew, 51, Valley Center, horse rancher. Killed Oct. 26 as she attempted to leave her home.

Ashleigh Roach, 16, Valley Center, student. Died Oct. 26 when car got trapped in fire near Hell Hole Canyon.

OLD FIRE (SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY):

James W. McDermith, 70, San Bernardino. Died Oct. 25 when he collapsed as he was evacuating his home.

Charles Cunningham, 93, San Bernardino. Died Oct. 25 when he collapsed as he stood in the street watching his home burn.

Chad Williams, 70, of Crestline. Died Oct. 25 of a heart attack while evacuating.

Gene Knowles, 75, of Big Bear. Died Oct. 26 of a heart attack while evacuating.

_ ASSOCIATED PRESS

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