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Calif. Firefighters Make Gains On Fires

Firefighters continued to make gains early Monday on three raging wildfires that reduced hundreds of homes to ash and cinders and forced thousands of residents to flee in Southern California.

Ferocious Santa Ana winds finally abated after fanning the blazes that have destroyed more than 800 houses, mobile homes and apartments since Thursday night from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and counties to the east. In all, the fires have burned more than 55 square miles. [See "Fires Status," below.)

Far away from the flames, the gains may not have been readily apparent. The smell of smoke pervaded metropolitan Los Angeles. Downtown skyscrapers were silhouettes in an opaque sky and concerns about air quality kept many people indoors. Organizers on Sunday canceled a marathon in suburban Pasadena where 8,000 runners had planned to participate.

Officials warned of another bad air day on Monday, and classes were canceled at dozens of schools near the fire zones in Orange County.

Many evacuees began the agonizing process of making their way back to their destroyed homes.

Starting Monday morning anxious residents of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, where 484 homes were destroyed by fire early Saturday, will be allowed to return to inspect their property. Firefighters were able to save about 120 other homes in the community, but many were badly damaged.

Dog teams had been searching the burned units to determine whether anybody perished during the fast-moving fire, but so far no bodies have been found, police said.

Tracy Burns knew her Sylmar home was gone but still wanted to get into the gated community to see what remained.

Listen to live coverage from CBS News Radio station KNX.
"Even those of us who know there's nothing left, we want to go in and kick over the rubble and see if we can find something, anything," Burns said.

Tears welled in her partner Wendy Dannenberg's eyes as she echoed: "If I can find one broken piece of one dish - anything, anything at all."

In the San Fernando Valley community of Oakridge in Sylmar the scale of destruction is hard for residents to accept, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"It looks like a battlefield," says Rick Asavis. "Just like a bomb went off here."

The fire that hit Oakridge, a long established mobile home park, blew out of the hills in early morning darkness. Most, like Una Mae Merkel, were asleep when the warning came to get out.

"The cops came, they pounded on the door, I answered the door, I didn't even know what was going on," Merkel said.

As the flames were devouring the homes, four men whose job it was to supervise the evacuation, suddenly found themselves on the frontline of a dangerous rescue, Blackstone reports.

"This lady in bed yelling for us to leave her just to leave her there, we couldn't do that," said Craig Fry, an assistant chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The four, two policemen and two firefighters, had just seconds to act.

"This was definitely rapidly deteriorating conditions," said LAPD Captain Phil Fontanetta.

They pulled the woman to safety just as her house went up in flames.

Fires Status:

In Sylmar in Los Angeles County, the Sayre Fire, which has burned 10,000 acres so far, had moved into the Placerita Canyon area of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains and was burning vigorously, but well outside the city. It is only 40 percent contained. 638 structures have been destroyed or damaged. Ten thousand people have been evacuated.

There were five injuries, including three firefighters, and five arrests for looting.

In Orange and Riverside Counties, the Triangle Complex Fire, which broke out along Riverside Freeway (91), has destroyed at least 112 residences in Anaheim, Yorba Linda and Corona and three structures in Brea, according to the Orange County Fire Authority. Between 20,000-23,000 people were evacuated. Six firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The fire has burned approximately 24,000 acres. A major aerial attack on Sunday raised containment to 19 percent.

In Santa Barbara County, the Tea Fire in Montecito (which is currently 80 percent contained) has burned 1,940 acres and destroyed 210 residences and damaged nine others. There were 22 injuries from smoke inhalation and three burn injuries.

The Smaller Stories

The big story is staggering, but besides the terrible numbers - acres scorches, buildings lost - CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports there are the little stories that sometimes reveal most.

"I had a lot, a lot of toys, books," said 4-year-old Andrew Stanley, whose parents, Bryan and Michelle, lost everything when their house in Yorba Linda, just south of L.A., burned down. "Every single day I play with them, but now today, I don't have them."

They were left with nothing ... or so they thought. The family teddy bear, which first belonged to Bryan's mother and survived the World War II London blitz, also withstood the Yorba Linda firestorm of 2008.

The heirloom wasn't even burned, said Bryan. "My whole house is gone, but I've still got the bear."

North of L.A., in the San Fernando Valley, a fast-moving blaze burned down 500 houses in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park - a "horrific incident," according to L.A. Fire Dep. Deputy chief Emile Mack.

After visiting the site, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, "I can tell you that after reviewing that site, all you see is charred wood, metal, bricks. What you see is a devastation that I've never seen before."

"I've lost everything, I know," one woman said.

"The hardest thing is the loss of my baby's nursery and all the memories and I didn't have time to get anything out."

With fires still raging north and south of L.A., 20-year-old Dillan Fowler is still in shock. His family's home burned down Saturday.

"I feel, like, empty and just, like, don't really know where to go," he said.

His father held up a burnt piece of paper which read "Everything is possible through people." They've lost their house, but not their hope.

John Schroeder returned yesterday to Yorba Linda to find that his family's home of 20 years was burned to the ground in the Triangle Complex Fire.

"Lot of memories," he said. "All my children were raised here."

"I've seen fires in the hills before but never anything like this. This is incredible; when we finally left it had to be 50 mph winds

"The house is a total loss, unfortunately. It's just amazing how random the fire is - it hits one spot but doesn't hit the other. I mean, I'm very happy that my neighbors' homes didn't get damaged. But it's just weird. I mean, we get burned down, and they basically have no damage."

And if there's a question about where they go from here, the Schroeders' answer: we will simply move forward.

"We'll rebuild," John said. "We'll make it better, too. We love it here."

On The Early Show, John and Sherri Schroeder stood at what little remained of their home.

"It's pretty rough," Sherri admitted. "But the family pulled together. We were quasi-organized and we held out to the very end, and when we realized that we just couldn't hold out any more, because the firestorm was coming right on top of us, we pulled all our cars, put everything in them that we had discussed, and headed on down the hill and hoped for the best, and that is the best we could do. But that's OK.

Despite the loss, Sherri is optimistic: "We'll just start over. I'm not going to let it beat us."

"You know, Sherri was a competitive swimmer," John said. "I was an athlete. It's not going to beat us. We'll rebuild."

"People might say, why would you rebuild in a spot that is vulnerable to fires?" asked Early Show co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez.

"You know, the area is so beautiful with the birds and the scenery, and to be honest with you, I can't replace my neighbors," Sherri said. "We have a very, very close group of neighbors up here. They're wonderful. And we all stick together. My one neighbor, God love them, came back up the hill, snuck up here because we did not have any firemen - we were on our own up here - and he had just finished building his home and he tried to save ours. There was no one. And he finally found firemen that were coming up the road down the road fighting another house that had totally burned down, and he begged them, he begged them to come, come save my house.

"That's why we're staying. You know, you can't replace neighbors like that."

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