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Residents of fire-scarred SoCal communities mull next step

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Chelsea J. Carter
October 29, 2007
— A week after a half million people fled Southern California’s wildfires, shelters began closing and residents were figuring out what to do next – even as firefighters kept a wary eye on the possibility of strong winds developing later in the week.

There was a chance of moderate Santa Anas – the fierce, dry winds that fueled the flames last week – returning in the next seven days, forecasters said.


„It’s a little premature to be celebrating, that’s for sure,“ California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Fred Daskoski said. „We’re looking for full control within a week but if we get any of these winds returning, there is a possibility that a couple of spots could have a blowout, and then we’d be off to the races again.“


The winds, which last week gusted up to 100 mph, pushed flames across more than 500,000 acres, destroying more than 2,000 homes and forcing thousands into emergency shelters in seven Southern California counties.


As of Sunday, the state Office of Emergency Services tallied 2,767 structures destroyed. The number included 2,013 homes, office spokeswoman Kim Oliver said.


With more than a dozen fires fully surrounded, firefighters were pushing to complete lines around seven others. Containment of those blazes ranged from 50 percent to 97 percent.


With nearly all mandatory evacuation orders lifted, wildfire victims have begun assessing damage and trying to figure out where to go next.


In San Diego, the largest remaining shelter is at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, where about 130 evacuees were living, some of them after losing homes.


Many came from other shelters, including high schools preparing to reopen on Monday and Qualcomm Stadium, which was closed by the city of San Diego Friday to prepare for the Chargers’ Sunday home game.


Lisa Shields, 32, arrived at the fairgrounds last week with two small children after being ordered to evacuate her Ramona home. Days later, she said she hadn’t gone home because of an ongoing boil-water order in her community.


„I don’t want to risk it,“ Shields said. „I’m not going to get up to boil water for the baby in the middle of the night, or take them to some other place for a bath, when we’re already in good shape here.“


Others were trying to figure out how to get home.


In the hard-hit resort mountain communities of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, many wanting to return were frustrated by roadblocks outside their neighborhoods.


Brian Babauta, 31, drove up Sunday from a San Bernardino hotel to try to get to his parents’ house at Lake Arrowhead, but was turned away at a checkpoint.


Babauta finished the day miles away, sleeping in his truck in a grocery store parking lot.


„We tried getting up there through a back route down a dirt road, and there was a firefighter sitting there saying stuff was still burning,“ Babauta said. „I just want to see if the rumors are true that my house is still standing.“


Others were working out how they would survive financially.


Janet Knecht supports three daughters, a grandson and her mother by cleaning houses in the wealthy mountain communities. She is concerned she may suffer financially until residents return home.


Before the fires, she earned $1,200 to $1,500 each month.


Knecht believes her renter’s insurance will cover some of her personal property losses, and she plans to apply for lost wages at FEMA.


„I think we’ll bounce back,“ she said. „The worst will be not being able to recover any of our personal things.“


Seven deaths have been directly attributed to the fires, including those of four suspected illegal immigrants, whose burned bodies were found near the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday.


Eleven Mexicans were being treated at a San Diego hospital for burns suffered in the wildfires after they crossed the border illegally, the Mexican government confirmed Saturday. Four were in critical condition.



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