RAMONA, California (Reuters) - Cooler, calmer weather helped firefighters gain the upper hand over seven remaining wildfires in Southern California on Sunday as residents sought clean water, food, and help rebuilding their lost homes.
The largest fire, in San Diego County, has burned more than 300 square miles but was 90 percent contained, up from 60 percent on Saturday. State officials said blazes still threatened 12,000 homes in the region, though firefighters were optimistic that the cooler weather would enable them to get the fires completely under control within about a week.
“As long as the weather continues like it is we should be able to meet all of our containment and control dates,” said state forestry and fire spokeswoman Roxanne Provaznik.
Hot, dry winds fueled as many as 24 separate wildfires last week, ravaging more than 500,000 acres and destroying 2,300 buildings, according to the California Office of Emergency Services. The fires have been responsible for 12 deaths and 78 injuries.
Most of the 640,000 San Diego County residents who were forced from their houses in the last week had been allowed back by Sunday, with just 19,000 still under evacuation orders, according to Lesley Kirk, a spokeswoman for the county’s department of emergency services.
About 6,700 homes in the hard-hit county are still without power, Kirk added.
At an assistance center in the San Diego suburb of Ramona, several hundred residents waited in lines for fast-tracked building permits, food stamps, unemployment assistance and other services.
Gary Westerfeld, a 52-year-old retail worker, was at the converted school to apply for a building permit after his 40-acres were consumed by “a towering inferno.”
“It’s like a moonscape,” Westerfeld said of the charred remains of the Ramona property where he had lived for eight years.
Area residents were also warned at first not to bathe in or consume tap water in their homes.
“We were told we can’t take showers or cook with the water even if the water gets boiled,” said Samuel Cruz, who with his twin brother, Daniel, was trying to get unemployment assistance for the week they were unable to get to their jobs at a woodcutting shop. “It’s hard, we just don’t have any water.”
But later on Sunday, officials said the water was safe enough to bathe in but still not safe to drink, even if boiled.
San Diego County officials have set up four such assistance centers, though elsewhere in the area life appeared to be back to normal. San Diego’s football team, the Chargers, played the Houston Texans at the city’s Qualcomm Stadium, which had been used as an emergency shelter for more than 10,000 evacuees earlier in the week.
In a sign of support for their hometown team, many of the area residents at the Ramona assistance center were sporting Chargers jerseys.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed the sold out crowd at Qualcomm Stadium before the game, thanking firefighters, police and volunteers before yelling “Go Chargers!” The Chargers went on to beat the Texans 35 to 10.
Also near San Diego, 50 evacuated horses remained unclaimed at a temporary shelter, and organizers pleaded with residents to pick up their animals.
Fire-related losses in San Diego County alone are expected to top $1 billion.
Elsewhere, in Orange County’s Silverado Canyon, a fire started by an arsonist covering 44 square miles was about 50 percent contained, according to Fire Captain Phil Rawlings.
“The situation is looking very good as far as no additional acreage burning,” Rawlings said by telephone. “We are doing very good with the weather cooperating with us.”
Rawlings said the weather was not as cool as on Saturday, when firefighters kept the blaze from crossing a ridge and storming toward homes in a neighboring county.
On Saturday, Schwarzenegger vowed to find the people responsible for starting the fire, saying “We’re right behind you.”
Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles