Wildfire Evacuees Face Hardships As They Return Home

Friday, October 26th 2007, 7:20 am
By: News On 6

RAMONA, Calif. (AP) _ With the worst of the wildfires dying down, many Southern Californians lucky enough to find their homes still standing could nevertheless face hardships for weeks to come, including polluted air, no electricity and no drinking water.

Power lines are down in many burned-over areas, and the smoke and ash could irritate people's lungs for as long as the blazes keep burning.

Randy and Aimee Powers returned to this mountain community in San Diego County on Friday to find their home without electricity or water, after fire trucks drained the town's reservoir.

``It's better to be at home. We're going to stick it out and do whatever we have to do up here to survive. We'll make it through,'' said Randy Powers, who joined a half-mile-long car caravan on Ramona's Aqua Lane.

Residents of 10,000 Ramona homes who called the water department when they found their water turned off were greeted by a recorded phone message that said: ``We are in extreme water crisis situation. No water use is allowed.''

Thousands of people continued returning to their neighborhoods as shelters across Southern California began shutting down. The largest, Qualcomm Stadium, which had housed 10,000 refugees at the height of the disaster, was being emptied out and readied for Sunday's NFL football game between the San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans.

While the danger had eased considerably since the weekend, numerous fires were still burning out of control.

In San Diego County, the area hardest hit, only one of five major fires was more than 50 percent contained. In the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area of San Bernardino County, one of two fires that have destroyed more than 300 homes was 70 percent contained, while the other was only 15 percent contained. A blaze in Orange County that blackened 26,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes near Irvine was 30 percent contained.

In all, more than a dozen fires had raced across more than 490,000 acres _ or 765 square miles _ by Friday. At least three people and possibly seven have been killed by flames. Seven others died of various causes after being evacuated.

About 1,800 homes have been destroyed, and damage has been put at more than $1 billion in San Diego County alone.

One of five people who have been arrested on arson charges since the wildfires broke out pleaded not guilty Friday. Police said witnesses spotted Catalino Pineda, 41, starting a fire Wednesday on a San Fernando Valley hillside. He is not linked to one of the major blazes.

Powers headed for a Ramona park where a water distribution center was manned by the National Guard. He and his wife needed jugs of spring water for themselves and their tropical fish.

``We can't flush the toilets and we've opened up the floodgates and are letting everyone back. I'm not sure if that's a good thing,'' said Brad Fisher of the Ramona Community Emergency Response Team. ``There's a real pioneer mentality.''

About 12,600 San Diego Gas and Electric customers remained without power Friday and 675 were without natural gas, said utility spokeswoman April Bolduc. The outages were mainly in hard-hit areas like Ramona, Rancho Bernardo, Fallbrook, Rancho San Diego and El Cajon.

Pollution control authorities across Southern California warned that smoke and ash are making the air dangerous. People with heart or respiratory disease, the elderly and children in those areas were urged to remain indoors.

Some people, like Robert Sanders of Rancho Bernardo, had no homes to return to. The 56-year-old photographer came back to find his house reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble. The fire-resistant box he kept his transparencies in was intact, but its contents were melted.

``I've lost my history,'' Sanders said. ``All the work I've done for the past 30 years, it's all destroyed.''

Nearby, Allen Jost and his wife, Edie, were among the lucky ones. Although 26 of 53 homes in their Lancashire Way neighborhood were destroyed, they lost only the spa on their back porch.

Wearing gloves and a respirator mask as he swept soot from his driveway, Jost predicted that hard-hit Rancho Bernardo would eventually bounce back.

``It's going to be a construction zone,'' said Jost, whose home was still without power and gas. ``But the neighbors are already getting together and talking about getting a single source for demolition and design and all that. I think when people rebuild, they'll rebuild in a way that this'll never happen again. We're going to have nice new houses _ in a year or two.''

By noon, the neighborhood was bustling with people digging through the debris with rakes and shovels, trying to find something that had survived the inferno. Khosrow Motamedi dug up a Persian rug and part of his coin collection.

``So far as I know, no one wants to leave,'' said Motamedi, 41. ``It's a beautiful place, under normal circumstances.''

At a news conference, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged it would take time to recover.

``It won't be overnight, and it won't be easy, but we won't let up until Southern California gets back to normal,'' he said as he announced several relief measures.

Until things return to normal, Renee Miller, seven months pregnant, was making do with one of dozens of portable toilets set up around Ramona. Her children, ages 8, 5 and 3, had not had showers in four days, she said, but she was swabbing them with antiseptic hand gel found at hand-washing stations.

``They are filthy little kids today,'' she said.

Meanwhile, more than 100 miles away in Malibu, former major league baseball player Pete LaCock cleaned up debris at his home. Everything in the house had been damaged by smoke.

``Sheets, clothes, paintings, everything,'' he said. ``It'll take two to three months to get back to normal.''

Still, LaCock considered himself lucky. Although the Presbyterian church down the street was destroyed, firefighters managed to stop the flames at his garage and guest house. ``The firemen were so great,'' he said.

One thing working in firefighters' favor was the weather. The sinister desert winds that gusted as high as 100 mph earlier in the week were gone and not expected to return any time soon.

Firefighters continued to battle dangerous blazes in many areas, including one that crested San Diego County's 5,500-foot Palomar Mountain, site of the world-famous Palomar Observatory. Crews cleared brush and set backfires Friday to halt the flames' advance.

The observatory, operated by the California Institute of Technology and home to the world's largest telescope when it was dedicated in 1948, did not appear to be in immediate danger, said observatory spokesman Scott Kardel.

To the southeast, a fire that had already destroyed more than 1,000 homes churned its way toward Julian. The town of 3,000, in the rolling hills of an apple-growing region, was ordered evacuated.