Authorities have lifted all evacuation orders affecting thousands of people, less than a week after a wildfire raged through mountainous terrain in Southern California and consumed hundreds of homes and other buildings.
About 82,000 people were ordered to leave their properties when the Blue Cut Fire broke out in San Bernardino County Tuesday, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. As firefighters advanced on the blaze, evacuation orders were gradually lifted.
Most of those residents are returning to find their homes intact, though not all. A preliminary damage assessment found 105 homes and 216 outbuildings destroyed across the rural, mountainous area where large swaths of land have been blackened.
Johanna Santore, 63, her husband and their 10-year-old granddaughter were among the last permitted to return home, though they already knew they didn't have much to get back to.
The family's home and nearly all their belongings were destroyed in the blaze.
Santore said the family was "holding up," but that Saturday evening when everyone was asleep she'd gone outside and cried thinking of the family's lost pets and mementoes. The Santores were out running an errand when the fire broke out and were unable to return to save anything.
Four dogs, six cats and a hamster left behind are missing.
"I'm hoping someone is stuck around hiding someplace," Santore said. "And if I start calling, they might recognize our voices."
In the meantime she has begun looking into how to replace birth certificates, their housing deed and other important documents they are unlikely to recover.
As residents return to their homes and deal with the aftermath, fire crews and other agencies continue to smother the fire and evaluate the affected areas.
“Crews in the area are continuing to mop up and starting to do repair and rehabilitation work in the area,” U.S. Forest Service's Lauren Durocher told KPCC.
Apart from securing the perimeter line, erosion control is also an important part of post-fire clean up.
Crews will go out and asses the ground to see if the soil was affected at all. In especially scorched patches, they plant native seeds to re-vegetate the area, Durocher said. Intense fire can change some of the soil properties. They also look for damaged infrastructure that needs repairs.
Southern California Edison is also out in the field fixing downed power poles.
“Though there are some areas inaccessible due to power line work going on, so some residents are not able to get home quite yet,” she said.
According to Durocher, the utility is working between Stone Basin and the 15 Freeway on Highway 138 to replace power lines.
Highway 138, from Highway 2 to Stone Basin, as well as portions of Highway 2, are open to residents only.
As the fire dwindles, so are extreme weather conditions that cause concern for fire danger. Meteorologist with the National Weather Service Jimmy Taeger said although Cajon Pass will experience winds up to 25 miles per hour, it's normal for this time of year.
Humidity levels are still under 20 percent, but that's also normal, he said.
The fire is approaching full containment and the animals displaced by the fire are slowly trickling back to their homes. At one point, the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds housed 667 evacuated animals. Over 640 of them have been reunited with their owners, CEO Geoff Hinds told KPCC.
The center held everything from tortoises, pigs and cows. Less than 40 animals remain at the site — Hinds is hopeful that they will be returned within the next day or so.
Most animals were brought in by the owners themselves. Some, however, were brought in from rescue teams, which makes it hard to find their owners after the fire. He said they use social media and work with the county's animal control department to find the owners of the unclaimed animals.
“We know there’s somebody out there who’s missing that animal and there’s an animal, either here or at one of the other shelters, that’s missing its’ owner,” he said.
For animals whose homes were destroyed by the blaze, the site tries to find short or long-term places for them to stay until the owner does.
Hinds urges local residents to contact San Bernardino County Animal Control if you’re still missing an animal.
A prolonged drought has transformed swaths of California into tinderboxes, ready to ignite. A half-dozen other wildfires were burning in the state, including one in central California that destroyed 34 homes and forced the closure of the famed Hearst Castle.
Due to shifting winds, the blaze is moving north toward Monterey County. Fire crews are enforcing that face of the fire and using dozers to extend the containment line, Los Angeles Fire Department's Kenichi Haskett said.
Just under 40 percent contained, the 3,785 firefighter's ability to wrangle the fire depend on which way it travels. If it continues farther west, cold air and higher humidity levels will make it easier to control, he said. If he fire expands to the east, higher temperatures will make it difficult.
Over one mile away, Hearst Castle is closed.
In rural Santa Barbara County, the 33-square-mile Rey Fire, which forced the evacuation of two campgrounds, was 20 percent contained.
In Northern California, fire crews were gaining control Sunday on an arson fire that destroyed 189 homes. Officials said the 6-square-mile Clayton Fire in Lower Lake was 95 percent contained.
A nearly monthlong blaze burning near California's scene Big Sur is not expected to be fully contained until the end of September. The Soberanes Fire has destroyed 57 homes and charred 133 square miles, Cal Fire said. It is 60 percent contained.