SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Firefighters made headway against 18 wildfires blazing across Southern California on Wednesday as hot winds abated for the first time in four days, but they were still battling to save entire neighborhoods from hopscotching flames.
Around 9,000 firefighters worked the scorched hillsides and canyons while the skies were choked with thick, acrid smoke that forced residents to stay indoors or wear masks to protect their eyes and lungs.
San Diego County, at the southern end of the state, has been hardest hit, suffering losses in excess of $1 billion. Even as some of the 500,000 evacuees were allowed to return home, three major fires burned out of control there.
"It is just like a chess game as to which area is the highest priority. We are the highest priority now," said Jeff Terpstra, a fire chief at the Witch fire. "Some of this area hasn't burned for 25 to 45 years. It is destined to burn."
After the largest evacuation in California's modern history, officials combed areas for residents to return, looking for hot spots, utility breakdowns and looters before giving the all-clear.
"We should have almost all of our people back in their homes by this evening," San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said, referring to evacuees within city limits.
One of the most desperate fights was in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, where the 20,000-acre (8,094 hectare) Santiago fire that had defied the efforts of fire crews for days was threatening homes in a gated community.
Crews dug a protective line between the flames and the neighborhoods, aided by water-dropping helicopters.
Authorities were investigating suspicions that the Santiago fire was set by an arsonist and federal prosecutors said the FBI had been asked to assist in the probe.
Many waited for official permission to return home without knowing the fate of their property and possessions.
"I know it's happening, but it still feels like a bad dream. I'm waiting to wake up," said evacuee Brenda Loveall, 36, who cried after seeing a newspaper photo that showed heavy damage to her apartment.
Los Angeles County also reported progress, canceling wind warnings for the first time since hot Santa Ana gusts blew in from the desert over the weekend, fanning brush fires after one of the driest summers on record.
Mountain blazes east of Los Angeles were the worst, but firefighters said calmer winds would make a big difference. Top wind speeds fell to below 50 mph (80 kph) after gale force gusts hit 80 mph (130 kph).
President George W. Bush declared a "major disaster" in seven Southern California counties, triggering extra federal help. He will travel to the region on Thursday to get a close-up look at the devastation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had 1,000 people on the ground in San Diego, Sanders said. FEMA and Bush were both criticized for being slow to respond when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region in 2005.
In Rancho Bernardo, one of the worst-hit San Diego County towns, embers smoldered in burned houses and firefighters extinguished hot spots before giving the all-clear.
"I have a place to go home to. I know because my answering machine is still working, which means it's not melted," said Rancho Bernardo resident Helle Powell, 61.
San Diego County officials said that even when the fires were extinguished they would face a major cleanup and huge costs. Based on initial estimates, just the homes damaged will be over $1 billion," Ron Lane, San Diego County emergency services director, told a news conference.
San Diego told residents to conserve water and electricity, as the fires sliced power supply to 60 percent of normal and threatened to cut off the area from the state's power grid.
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Dana Ford in San Diego