Rain helps CA firefighters as blazes remain

A man views his destroyed house in Rancho Bernardo, California. Even as many of the California wildfires died down and residents returned home, lingering dust and soot-laden air made it difficult for many to breathe.
A man views his destroyed house in Rancho Bernardo, California. Even as many of the California wildfires died down and residents returned home, lingering dust and soot-laden air made it difficult for many to breathe.

(CBS) -- Firefighters Sunday hoped to hold on to the strong gains they made against Southern California blazes, despite a forecast of warmer, drier weather and a continuing threat to some homes.

The blistering Santa Ana winds that whipped fires over more than a half-million acres earlier in the week were replaced by light breezes and even some rain on Saturday but another change in direction was expected to bring drier weather to Orange and San Diego counties.

"For all the homeowners and folks that live in the backcountry, boy is this some needed moisture in the atmosphere that we're seeing right now," reported CBS Affiliate KFMB meteorologist Shawn Styles. "This is from what was a hurricane last week down off of Cabo San Lucas last week, Kiko."

The fires have torched 1,790 homes but more than a dozen had been surrounded and nine others were 40 to 97 percent contained.

"We're still cautiously optimistic" of making progress, said Chris Caswell with the Orange County Fire Authority.

Blazes continued to burn in the Lake Arrowhead resort region of the towering San Bernardino Mountains, 100 miles east of Los Angeles. They also burned in rugged wilderness above isolated canyon communities of Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles. A blaze 60 miles northeast of San Diego stopped its advance toward the mountain town of Julian.

A wildfire was about a mile from thousands of homes in Arrowbear, Green Valley Lake and Running Springs. Rain began falling in the mountain range during the late afternoon.

"The fire is moving away from the residences, but with the wind anything can happen," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lisa Jones.

Forecasters said there would be some a weak flow of wind out of the north and northwest on Sunday and then a return to calm and drizzle.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Saturday visited a command post near Orange County's Santiago Canyon fire to announce assistance for people with losses, warn of contracting scams, and pledge to find whoever set the nearby blaze that continued to threaten homes after destroying 14.

Schwarzenegger told a news conference that he would work to improve problems in the state's deployment of firefighting aircraft when major wildfires erupt. The Associated Press reported Thursday that nearly two dozen military helicopters stayed grounded for days after several wildfires broke out because state personnel who must be on board were not immediately available.

Two of the California National Guard's C-130 cargo planes also couldn't help because they've yet to be outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant, though that was promised four years ago.

"There are things that we could improve on and I think this is what we are going to do because a disaster like this ... in the end is a good vehicle, a motivator for everyone to come together," Schwarzenegger said. "I remember after Katrina, as sad as it is, but it takes sometimes a disaster like this to really wake everyone up and affect things."

Seven deaths have been directly attributed to the fires, including those of four suspected illegal immigrants, whose burned bodies were found near the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday.

Eleven Mexicans were being treated at a San Diego hospital for burns suffered in the wildfires after crossing the border illegally, the Mexican government confirmed Saturday. Four were in critical condition.

About 4,400 people remained in 28 shelter sites in Southern California, while others waited out the fires in makeshift encampments.

In Highland, at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, about 20 people were in their sixth day of living in a Wal-Mart parking lot, getting daily visits from sheriff's officials who reported their 17 homes were still intact.

"What are the chances of that? The hundreds of people staying at the shelters, I still don't think they have the comfort of knowing that kind of information," said Robert Newbourgh, 44.

Light rain also fell on the Rancho Bernardo section of San Diego, where more than 360 homes were lost. National Guard troops patrolled and postal trucks delivered mail to homes that were still standing.

The fire is moving away from the residences, but with the wind anything can happen.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lisa Jones"Everybody is really happy for me and I'm sad for them," said Helena Hyman, a retired school administrator whose cul-de-sac home survived with five ruined homes on each side. She credited her good fortune to replacing wood shingles with a fiberglass roof and chopping down a eucalyptus tree within the last five years.

Bruce Heinemann, 48, spoke with an insurance adjuster as friends sifted through his ruined home, looking for his wife's wedding ring, photos and other mementos.

Meanwhile, his daughter was at a newly rented home making lists of what they lost, and his wife was visiting department stores to get prices for the insurers.

"The kind of mode you're in is, what do you do today? What do you do tomorrow? Just make a list and get it done," he said.

The Heinemanns had about 10 minutes to evacuate Monday morning, just enough time to escape with some clothes and three of their four cars.

Heinemann, a self-employed loan officer, said it makes financial sense to rebuild, but they may never return to live on the street where the fire left hopscotch destruction - some of the Spanish-style, tile-roofed homes left standing, while others were turned to ash, leaving burned-out cars, chimneys and remnants of refrigerators and washing machines.

"It sounds terrible, but I'm glad it's gone. How would you like to sit in your house when one third of your neighbors are gone?" he said.

Elsewhere in the community, mortgage broker Mike Bartholemew, 37, removed rotten food from his refrigerator as he waited for cleaners to vacuum soot from inside his home, which survived the flames.

Bartholemew said returning home stirred memories of the frightening experience as flames advanced toward his home at 4 a.m. Monday. He said he opened his front door to "a bellowing furnace, smoke and embers" as a palm tree across the street burned and neighbors screamed.

Bartholemew said his wife and two children fled in an SUV and he left in another car, but he fell unconscious for unknown reasons and crashed into a utility box. He said a police officer rescued him.

"I have never in my life been that scared. I kept repeating to myself, 'Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic.' The fact that no one died in this neighborhood is a miracle," he said.

Bartholemew said it was eerie to be surrounded by ruined homes but he was anxious to come back home as soon as electricity was restored.

"I don't know where I would move in San Diego with these dry Santa Ana conditions we get," he said. "I could move to Indiana, but they have tornadoes and floods. Everywhere you go in the country you get something. Here we have earthquakes and fires."

Count on News 11 and WTOL.com for continuing coverage of this story.

Posted by NCD

CBS News contributed to this report.