As Fires Dwindle, Californians Head Home

Pete LaCock, a former major league baseball player, at his Malibu Knolls, Calif., home six days after fire first swept through, Friday, Oct. 26, 2007.
AP/Reed Saxon
With some of the worst wildfires dying down, many Southern Californians lucky enough to find their homes still standing could nevertheless face hardships for weeks to come, including polluted air, no electricity and no drinking water.

Power lines are down in many burned-over areas, and the smoke and ash could irritate people's lungs for as long as the blazes keep burning.

Randy and Aimee Powers returned to this mountain community in San Diego County on Friday to find their home without electricity or water, after fire trucks drained the town's reservoir.

"It's better to be at home. We're going to stick it out and do whatever we have to do up here to survive. We'll make it through," said Randy Powers, who joined a half-mile-long car caravan on
Ramona's Aqua Lane.

Residents of 10,000 Ramona homes who called the water department when they found their water turned off were greeted by a recorded phone message that said: "We are in extreme water crisis situation. No water use is allowed."

Thousands of evacuees returned to neighborhoods stripped bare, but other communities remained emptied because of blazes that continue to threaten. While the danger had eased considerably since the weekend, numerous fires were still burning out of control, and one in Orange County triggered renewed efforts to evacuate residents Friday.

In San Diego County, the area hardest hit, only one of five major fires was more than 50 percent contained. In the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area of San Bernardino County, one of two
fires that have destroyed more than 300 homes was 70 percent contained, while the other was only 15 percent contained.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that blackened 26,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes near Irvine. The blaze was 30 percent contained, but it was sending up a massive plume of smoke at late afternoon.

Authorities believe that blaze was deliberately set and asked for help finding a white Ford F-150 seen in the area where the fire started.

Orange County Fire Chief Kris Concepcion tells CBS News that the public has called in more than 150 tips so far.

Five people have been arrested for arson since wildfires broke out across Southern California this week, but none has been linked to any of the major blazes.

In San Diego, shelters were clearing out Friday; the last of more than 10,000 displaced residents who sought refuge at Qualcomm Stadium were to have left by day's end - making way for Sunday's game between the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Texans.

The NFL said it had decided against relocating.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said the league informed him it intended to play the game as scheduled. The city would be able to provide enough public safety personnel to handle the game without impeding wildfire recovery efforts, Sanders said in a news release.

Officials have opened assistance centers where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and 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."

Although crews are starting to gain the upper hand in many of the fires, CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes says they are taking nothing for granted because the area is still bone dry.

Southeast of San Diego, a fire that already has destroyed more than 1,000 homes was churning its way toward Julian. The town of 3,000, nestled in the rolling hills of a popular apple-growing region, was under mandatory evacuation.

East of San Diego, firefighters were trying to keep flames from Lake Morena, which is surrounded by hundreds of homes.

"Until you get a control line around each and every individual fire, there's a potential of them blowing out anywhere," said Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

CBS News correspondent Steve Futterman reports that as firefighters take control of the Witch Creek fire, "The good news is that even though the hillside is on fire there's virtually no wind so it's not moving anywhere."

Fires in seven Southern California counties have raced across 494,355 acres - about 772 square miles - in less than a week. They were fanned earlier by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County, where several fires remained far from being fully contained. The property damage there alone surpassed $1 billion.

The state has come 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, grounded by government rules and bureaucracy as flames spread.

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 flying too dangerous.

Additionally, the National Guard's C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-needed 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. Seven people died of other causes connected to the evacuations.

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.

Among the structures threatened Friday was the Palomar Observatory in northern San Diego County. Crews were clearing brush and lighting back burns around the landmark building, Daskoski said.

The observatory, home to the world's largest telescope when it was dedicated in 1948, did not appear to be in immediate danger, said observatory spokesman Scott Kardel, who had been evacuated but was in contact with staff who remained.