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Californians return to fire-ravaged homes

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Shocked residents began returning home on Monday to three areas of Southern California ravaged by wildfires, some finding their houses and cars reduced to piles of smoking, melted rubble.

The fires blazed on, though diminishing winds and lower temperatures helped keep them in check, and thick brown and black smoke still hung over much of the region, stinging the eyes and making breathing difficult.

Weary firefighters still fought to contain fires in the foothills north of Los Angeles, in Orange County to the southeast and at the celebrity-studded enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara.

Three fires have over the past five days destroyed around 1,000 homes and blacken 55 square miles (142 sq km) across Southern California -- ranging from mobile homes to apartments and multimillion-dollar mansions.

With most neighborhoods seemingly out of danger, barring a sudden shift in the hot Santa Ana winds, and the fires driven into unpopulated areas, many of the estimated 50,000 evacuees were being allowed to return home.

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In Sylmar, residents of a mobile home park where at least 510 homes were destroyed toured the devastation to determine what, if anything, they had left.

Shuttled through the mobile home park in vans, the residents saw lot after lot where all remained were brick foundations, brick porches with twisted metal railings singed by fire and blackened metal debris. In some lots the burned-out hulks of cars sat next to charred foliage and potted plants.

Only about 100 homes remained untouched and those residents were given a single red and white shopping bag to gather belongings -- typically clothes or photographs but in one case a stuffed animal.

“Its amazing, its a miracle,” one man told reporters on discovering that his mobile home had been spared by the flames.

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Though only 360 of the park’s estimated 1,700 residents have so far come forward, authorities say they had no reason to believe anyone died. Search crews have scoured the wreckage with cadaver dogs in the last two days but found no bodies.

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Residents in Yorba Linda, south of Los Angeles, also spent the day picking through the charred wreckage of their homes. In one neighborhood, perched on a ridge overlooking wooded canyons, eight homes were destroyed.

“It was really hard when we first got here, it was shocking,” 23-year-old Brittney Fowler said of returning with her mother and stepfather to the Yorba Linda home she had lived in her entire life.

Fowler recalled racing through the home two days earlier, grabbing a few pictures and other mementos as the flames marched down a hillside toward her. She remembered thinking: “I’ll miss you, house.”

Firefighters expected to fully contain later on Monday another fire that whipped through Montecito. Investigators think that blaze, which broke out on Thursday in a popular area for teen gatherings, was started by people.

Authorities said it would take several days to put out all of the fires but were dependent on cooling temperatures and cooperation from unpredictable winds.

No deaths or major injuries have been reported and the cause of the fires was not known.

Southern California is in a drought after minimal rainfall for two years that has turned the terrain bone dry. Population growth over the past 20 years has seen once arid brushland on city outskirts turned into housing developments.

Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by David Storey