RAMONA, Calif. – With some of the worst wildfires dying down, many Southern Californians lucky enough to find their homes still standing could nevertheless face hardships for weeks to come, including polluted air, no electricity and no drinking water.
Power lines are down in many burned-over areas, and the smoke and ash could irritate people’s lungs for as long as the blazes keep burning.
Randy and Aimee Powers returned to this mountain community in San Diego County on Friday to find their home without electricity or water, after fire trucks drained the town’s reservoir.
“It’s better to be at home. We’re going to stick it out and do whatever we have to do up here to survive. We’ll make it through,” said Randy Powers, who joined a half-mile-long car caravan on Ramona’s Aqua Lane.
Residents of 10,000 Ramona homes who called the water department when they found their water turned off were greeted by a recorded phone message that said: “We are in extreme water crisis situation. No water use is allowed.”
Thousands of people continued returning to their neighborhoods as shelters across Southern California began shutting down. The largest, Qualcomm Stadium, which had housed 10,000 evacuees at the height of the disaster, was being emptied out and readied for Sunday’s NFL football game between the San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans.
While the danger had eased considerably since the weekend, numerous fires were still burning out of control, and one in Orange County triggered renewed efforts to evacuate residents Friday.
In San Diego County, the area hardest hit, only one of five major fires was more than 50 percent contained. In the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area of San Bernardino County, one of two fires that have destroyed more than 300 homes was 70 percent contained, while the other was only 15 percent contained. A blaze in Orange County that blackened 26,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes near Irvine was 30 percent contained, but it was sending up a massive plume of smoke at late afternoon.
One of five people who have been arrested on arson charges since the wildfires broke out pleaded not guilty Friday. Police said witnesses spotted Catalino Pineda, 41, starting a fire Wednesday on a San Fernando Valley hillside. He is not linked to one of the major blazes.
About 12,600 San Diego Gas and Electric customers remained without power Friday and 675 were without natural gas, said utility spokeswoman April Bolduc. The outages were mainly in hard-hit areas like Ramona, Rancho Bernardo, Fallbrook, Rancho San Diego and El Cajon.
Pollution control authorities across Southern California warned that smoke and ash are making the air dangerous. People with heart or respiratory disease, the elderly and children in those areas were urged to remain indoors.
Some people, like Robert Sanders, of Rancho Bernardo, had no homes to return to. The 56-year-old photographer came back to find his house reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble. The fire-resistant box he kept his transparencies in was intact, but its contents were melted.
“I’ve lost my history,” Sanders said. “All the work I’ve done for the past 30 years, it’s all destroyed.”
At a news conference, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged it would take time to recover. “It won’t be overnight, and it won’t be easy, but we won’t let up until Southern California gets back to normal,” he said.