Associated Press Wire

Aug 21, 7:54 PM EDT

Southern California wildfire evacuees allowed to return home


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SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) -- Five days after an explosive wildfire in Southern California sent thousands fleeing for their lives, authorities lifted all evacuation orders on Sunday to allow residents to return home.

About 82,000 people were ordered to leave their properties Tuesday when the fire broke out 60 miles 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 terrain 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 58 square miles was 83 percent contained Sunday morning, up from 73 percent the evening before. 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 neighborhood where a fire could suddenly flare up on the property next door from something still smoldering," Dillon said.

Fire officials briefed residents at an evacuation center 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.

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 is stuck around hiding someplace," Santore said. "And if I start calling, they might recognize 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 Sunday.

That fire grew to nearly 38 square miles overnight into Sunday morning and remained 35 percent contained. Fire spokeswoman 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.

In rural Santa Barbara County, a 15-square-mile wildfire forced the evacuation of two campgrounds.

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 Sunday on an arson fire that destroyed 189 homes. Officials said the 6-square-mile fire in Lower Lake was 95 percent contained.

A nearly monthlong blaze burning near California's scene Big Sur is not expected to be fully contained until the end of September. Cal Fire said the fire has destroyed 57 homes and charred 133 square miles. It is 60 percent contained.

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Associated Press writer Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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