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Residents to inspect California homes charred by wildfires
LOS ANGELES -- Smoky skies cleared and once-whipping winds slowed to a standstill Tuesday, as another wave of those who fled Southern California's ferocious weekend wildfires prepared to sort through the remains of their homes.
Three fires have destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and apartments and burned 42,000 acres, or 65 square miles, forcing thousands to flee. The causes of all three were under investigation, although a human cause was suspected in a Santa Barbara County blaze.
The state said Tuesday the cost of fighting the wildfires is worsening the state's budget crisis. The governor's finance director, H.D. Palmer, said the state has spent $305 million on emergency firefighting since July 1. Only $69 million had been budgeted.
Lawmakers are currently meeting in a special session to address the state's fiscal crisis and must act by the end of the month. The state also will seek federal reimbursement.
Many residents of the 484 homes destroyed in the tight-knit Oakridge Mobile Home Park were expected to line up and walk through to see the worst of the devastation for themselves after authorities made sure there were no bodies in the ashes.
A day earlier, Michael Hernandez pulled a charred photo album from the wreckage of his home, the plastic pages melted and flaking after a wildfire tore through the mobile home where he lived with his grandparents and 7-year-old daughter.
It was one of a handful of keepsakes he was able to rescue during a police-escorted tour for some residents of the park that became a flattened field of blackened trees and twisted metal.
"We came here with a little hope and we walked around and pretty much everything's ruined," said Hernandez, a 32-year-old artist who splits his time between the park in Sylmar and his studio in downtown Los Angeles. "I don't recognize my room."
More than 500 people made the trip Monday but were not allowed to sift through the ruins as cadaver-sniffing dogs scoured the area to make sure no one had died in the blaze. After an exhaustive search, no bodies were found.
Residents whose homes were intact were allowed to quickly pick up clothes, toiletries and other belongings under police escort.
Most evacuation orders were lifted in Southern California by Tuesday, when the clear skies and calm winds helped firefighters make some gains, bad air remained in some places and classes were canceled at dozens of schools near fire zones in Orange County.
Warm weather was forecast to remain Tuesday with temperatures reaching the 80s in much of the region, but winds weren't expected to blow much harder than about 5 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
In Sylmar, wild winds blew a wall of fire through the mobile home complex Saturday and set them ablaze so quickly that even firefighters had to drop their hoses and run.
Firefighters were able to save about 120 homes, but many were badly damaged in the park that residents described as idyllic for its mountain scenery, swimming pool and tennis courts and community spirit.
"It's a disaster," said Joan Costa, whose home was spared in the blaze.
Los Angeles police officials were still looking for residents of 166 properties who have not yet contacted authorities. Official listed the numbers of those spaces and urged to confirm they are alive and well.
Elsewhere, the largest of the fires has burned nearly 29,000 acres in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties and has destroyed more than 250 homes and apartment units. Firefighters had it 60 percent surrounded. San Bernardino became the fourth county to have a state of emergency declared.
In Yorba Linda in Orange County, where more than 150 homes were lost, residents also returned to survey the devastation.
David Waltemeyer, fire chief in Corona near where the fire broke out Saturday morning, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that authorities did not believe the fire was intentionally set and likely had a mechanical cause such as exhaust from a vehicle on the nearby 91 Freeway.
"I want to allay fears an arsonist is out there," Waltemeyer said.
The first of the wildfires broke out in the Montecito area of Santa Barbara County, about 90 miles northwest of Sylmar. It destroyed 210 homes, many of them mansions that once had sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. It was fully contained by Monday night and the cause was under investigation. Officials said they believed it was "human-caused."
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said President-elect Barack Obama contacted him Sunday night to offer what help he could. Obama has turned his campaign website home page into a plea to help fire victims that includes a link to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's site, where people can sign up to volunteer or donate.
Schwarzenegger on Monday asked the Bush administration to declare Southern California a federal disaster site. The governor said many of the residents affected by the fires -- particularly mobile home owners -- lacked insurance or are seriously underinsured.