As fires burn, some evacuees return home

SAN DIEGO (CBS/AP) -- Though several blazes still burned Friday across San Diego County, the region hardest hit by the firestorms that began last weekend, thousands of evacuees have been trickling back to neighborhoods stripped bare.

The football stadium where thousands sought refuge is closing as an evacuation center, marking a symbolic show of progress. Once sheltering more than 10,000 people, Qualcomm Stadium was home to about 200 on Friday morning.

Among those heading out was Norman Graczyk, who spent the past four nights at Qualcomm with his wife and their four young sons. They were packing up and preparing to head back to their apartment complex in Ramona, which survived the fires.

"We're kind of tired of staying here," said Graczyk, 43, as his sons played with a stuffed soccer ball near the two tents that had been the family's refuge since Monday. "We want to go home and rest."

According to reporter Andrew Mollenbeck, those who don't have a home to go back to are being moved out to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The San Diego Chargers will return home to play the Houston Texans at Qualcomm on Sunday as scheduled, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said.

Thousands of people lost their homes this week to the wildfires that left an arc of destruction from Ventura County just north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

In all, fires raced across 490,000 acres, an area half the size of Rhode Island. They were fanned early in the week by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.

"I've lost my history," said Robert Sanders, a 56-year-old photographer who returned to a smoldering mound that once was his rented house in the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo.

Among the possessions he lost to the flames and withering heat were his transparencies, melted inside a fire-resistant box, and a photograph of his father.

"All the work I've done for the past 30 years, it's all destroyed," he said.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County. The property damage there alone has surpassed $1 billion.

Meanwhile, several fires continued to burn out of control Friday. Though fire crews are starting to gain the upper hand in many of the fires, CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes says they are taking nothing for granted because the area is still bone dry.

One fire crested a mountain and was threatening the landmark Palomar Observatory, which is operated by the California Institute of Technology and was home to the world's largest telescope when it opened in 1908.

"I'm not sure how close it is, but evidently it's close enough for us to be concerned about (the observatory) and the radio towers on top," said Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

He said crews were clearing brush from around the observatory and lighting back burns to halt the fire's advance.

To the southeast, the Witch Fire, which already has destroyed more than 1,000 homes, was churning its way toward Julian. The town of 3,000, nestled in the rolling hills of a popular apple-growing region, was under mandatory evacuation.

East of San Diego, firefighters also were trying to keep flames from Lake Morena, which is surrounded by hundreds of homes.

Friday's flare-ups underscored the wildfires' continuing threat, even as crews were making rapid progress.

"Until you get a control line around each and every individual fire, there's a potential of them blowing out anywhere," Daskoski said.

CBS News correspondent Steve Futterman reports that as firefighters take control of the Witch Creek fire, "The good news is that even though the hillside is on fire there's virtually no wind so it's not moving anywhere."

56-year-old photographer Robert SandersA show of the federal government's support came Thursday when President George W. Bush toured the fire-ravaged area with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mr. Bush pledged the government's cooperation.

As the governor and president witnessed the devastation, the state came under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires' crucial first hours.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes sat idle as flames spread, grounded by government rules and bureaucracy.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry "fire spotters" who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made it too dangerous to fly.

Additionally, the National Guard's C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-standing retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.

"When you look at what's happened, it's disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that's put tens of thousands of people in danger," Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.

"There's all kinds of time for historians to compare this response to that response," Mr. Bush said.

The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home.

Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.

Orange County Fire Chief Kris Concepcion tells CBS News that the public has called in more than 150 tips that could lead to the arsonists who set at least two of this week's fires.

Even as evacuees returned home and fire crews began mop-up duties in some areas, the wildfires continued to threaten homes in others.

An aerial assault was helping firefighters corral two blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, a thickly wooded resort area where 313 homes have been lost.

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CBS News and Associated Press contributed to this report.