Southern California wildfire evacuees allowed to return home

2016-08-22 11:16
A San Bernardino Fire Department firefighter works with a cadaver dog searching the ruins for anyone who may have been overrun by the flames of a wildfire along State Route 138, in Phelan, California. (San Bernardino County Fire Department via AP)

A San Bernardino Fire Department firefighter works with a cadaver dog searching the ruins for anyone who may have been overrun by the flames of a wildfire along State Route 138, in Phelan, California. (San Bernardino County Fire Department via AP)

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San Bernardino - Five days after an explosive wildfire in Southern California drove thousands from their homes, authorities lifted all evacuation orders on Sunday to allow them to return.

About 82 000 people were ordered to leave their properties on Tuesday when the fire broke out 96 kilometres east of Los Angeles.

Most of those residents are returning to find their homes intact, though not all. A preliminary damage assessment found 105 homes and 216 outbuildings destroyed across the rural, mountainous terrain where large swaths of open land have been turned black.

"This fire did not go through a dense community like some fires do," fire spokesman Costa Dillon said Sunday. "Almost all of this area is sparsely populated."

The once-fast moving and erratic blaze that burned nearly 93 square kilometres was 85% contained. Firefighters were going property-to-property in the areas most heavily hit to quell any lingering flames and hot spots.

"You don't want somebody to come back to a neighbourhood where a fire could suddenly flare up on the property next door from something still smouldering," Dillon said.

Fire officials briefed residents at an evacuation centre on Sunday morning at the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds where about 15 residents remained.

Johanna Santore, 63, her husband and their 10-year-old granddaughter were among those who learned Sunday they are still not being permitted to return home.

The family's home and nearly all their belongings were destroyed in the blaze.

Pets still missing

Santore said the family was "holding up," but that Saturday evening when everyone was asleep she'd gone outside and cried thinking of the family's lost pets and mementoes. The Santores were out running an errand when the fire broke out and were unable to return to save anything.

Four dogs, six cats and a hamster left behind are missing.

"I'm hoping someone stuck around and is hiding someplace," Santore said. "And if I start calling, they might recognise our voices."

In the meantime, she has begun looking into how to replace birth certificates, their housing deed and other important documents they are unlikely to recover.

A prolonged drought has transformed swaths of California into tinderboxes, ready to ignite. Six other wildfires were burning in the state, including one in San Luis Obispo County that forced the closure of the historic Hearst Castle on Saturday. It remained closed on Sunday.

That fire has destroyed 34 homes and burned 69 square kilometres since it began August 13. It remained 35% contained. Fire spokesperson Jaime Garrett said the fire was growing in the opposite direction of the Hearst Castle. The castle is a popular tourist attraction and houses a large art collection that belonged to media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

More fires raging

In rural Santa Barbara County, a 53-square-kilometre wildfire that forced the evacuation of two campgrounds was 20% contained.

In the southern Sierra Nevada, another blaze feeding on dense timber in Sequoia National Forest forced the evacuation of several tiny hamlets.

In Northern California, fire crews were gaining control on Sunday on an arson fire that destroyed 189 homes. Officials said the 9-square-kilometre fire in Lower Lake was 95% contained.

A nearly month-long blaze burning near California's scene Big Sur is not expected to be fully contained until the end of September. The fire has destroyed 57 homes and charred 214 square kilometres, Cal Fire said. It is 60% contained.


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