More people go home as progress made against California fire

(AP)
(AP)

Phelan — More people returned to their homes on Friday as fire-fighters made significant progress against a huge wildfire burning in Southern California's San Bernardino National Forest, but that was tempered by the announcement that at least 96 homes and 213 outbuildings were destroyed.

Johanna Santore was among those left homeless. She was running an errand on Tuesday when the fire charged through her neighbourhood. She tried to rush home to rescue the family's four dogs, six cats and hamster but was blocked by closed roads.

Frantic for answers, she posted messages about her pets on Facebook. A group of animal rescue volunteers saw her pleas and offered to check on the animals.

They found the house in smouldering ruins — with no signs of the pets.

"I'm actually feeling numb," said Santore, who fled with her husband and granddaughter to an evacuation centre. "It's like a nightmare."

Thousands of residents chased from their mountain and desert homes were slowly beginning to take stock of their losses as the preliminary damage assessment was released for the blaze that erupted on Tuesday in drought-parched canyons, around 96km east of Los Angeles.

Fire-fighters initially struggled to get the towering flames under control but later made dramatic progress in corralling the fire that scorched nearly 150 square kilometres and was 40% contained. Plans were underway to demobilise some of the nearly 1 600 firefighters.

"It's looking very good, we took the offensive last night into today," fire spokesperson Brad Pitassi said.

He said the number of destroyed homes and buildings could have been much higher for such a powerful fire.

A prolonged drought has transformed swaths of California into tinderboxes, ready to ignite. Several other wildfires were burning in the state, including a blaze in rural Santa Barbara County that prompted the evacuation of a pair of campgrounds.

Michelle Keeney took a double-whammy hit. Not only did the fire level her house, but it also engulfed the Summit Inn, a popular Route 66 diner where she was the general manager.

"I was in utter disbelief," said Keeney, who managed to salvage her father's silver ID bracelet and an antique gun he had from World War II.

Max Torres didn't know whether his house was safe until he and his wife returned on Thursday night. A decade ago, another wildfire narrowly missed the couple's home.

"They saved our house last time. They saved everything," he said. "And they did it again."

The Santores weren't as lucky. Volunteers who drove to their house found a moonscape. Some of the neighbors' homes were still standing, seemingly intact.

Before the fire roared through, Johanna Santore had redecorated her granddaughter's room in a zebra pattern and added a loft bed.

"We don't plan on rebuilding," she said. "We plan on leaving."

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