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Hopeful Californians return to what's left of their homes

Published Sep. 2, 2005

With the Southern California wildfires nearly contained, a wave of residents Sunday returned to the San Bernardino Mountains to see if their homes survived one of the most destructive infernos.

In the community of Cedar Glen, owners of about 350 homes found only devastation.

"The house is completely gone, nothing," Pedro Helguera, 52, said of the home he and his wife had lived in for 24 years. "We've got to start from the bottom."

Marcia Ledkins was among the more fortunate of the thousands of people who fled the resort town of Big Bear Lake a week ago as wind-driven flames closed in. She reopened her liquor store and deli Sunday, giving away coffee, doughnuts and sandwiches to anyone who stopped in.

"We're happy to be home and see everything's safe," she said.

The Old Fire, one of several to devastate Southern California, was 72 percent contained after burning more than 91,000 acres and destroying 851 homes.

In San Diego County, the 281,000-acre Cedar Fire _ the largest individual blaze in California history _ was 90 percent contained Sunday after burning for six days in the mountains northeast of San Diego.

Firefighters have been aided by wet, cool weather that moved in on Thursday. Santa Ana winds had been expected to return as soon as today, but Ann Westling of the U.S. Forest Service said the winds probably won't return for another week.

"Things are looking a lot better today than they were yesterday," she said.

Not everyone was allowed to go home.

"I'm happy we are safe, I'm satisfied we've got food. I'm hopeful we'll get up there soon," Eligio Miglia, 51, of Crestline, said as he pushed his grandmother in a wheelchair through the breakfast line at a San Bernardino shelter. They have been living in a mobile home with four other family members.

As the threat diminished, authorities planned to send as many as 3,000 firefighters home.

Most of the firefighters being released were on loan from city and county fire departments statewide and were needed back home.

"You miss your family and you've been living in a state where you really don't know what's going on," said Bob Narus, a spokesman for officials fighting the Old Fire. "When you get off work you just want to eat and sleep."

About the fires

Acres burned: 745,950.

Homes destroyed: 3,495.

Deaths: 20.

Injuries: 185.

Firefighters: About 11,000.

Fires since Oct. 21: 13.

Fires not fully contained: 5.