SAN DIEGO – The pockets of smoke remain on the northern and southern horizons as Day Four of the Southern California firestorms ended, with locals trying to get back to normal as Border Patrol agents made a grisly discovery.
Agents found the charred remains of four apparent illegal migrant workers in a wooded area in Barrett Junction, a hard-scrabble hamlet just a few miles from the Mexican border.
"They could have been out there a while," said Paul Parker, a spokesman for the San Diego County medical examiner's office. They were tentatively identified as three men and one woman.
• PHOTOS: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5
• PHOTOS: uReport 1 | uReport 2
• PHOTOS: Residents Return
• Reporter's Notebook: Spirit of Hope Rising From the Embers
The discovery came as firefighters still worked into the evening to squelch hotspots in the Harris Fire along Highway 94 south of San Diego, which had scorched parts of Barrett Junction leaving it looking like a moonscape and smelling of burnt sage. The highway remained closed to residents, though some stragglers remained cut off from civilization behind the police barricades.
Meanwhile, Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms widened their arson investigation, confirming that at least some of the fires were deliberately set.
Reward money of at least $250,000 was posted Thursday — including $100,000 from a local radio station — as officials hoped someone might come forward with information leading to the arrest of arson suspects.
Throughout the San Diego region, locals tried to pick up the pieces in towns where firefighters had extinguished the flames.
In Escondido, hundreds lined the road leading to Kit Carson Park to greet President Bush's motorcade as he came to address the first responders.
Those that returned to communities like Rancho Bernardo and Escondido hoped for the best and expected the worst.
"We're going to do everything we can to make sure that they come home to their house the way they left it," said Newport Beach Fire Capt. Rob Beuch as he rested from fighting the Santiago Fire in Orange County.
Across the city, evacuation centers emptied and Mayor Jerry Sanders announced that Qualcomm Stadium would close on Friday at noon and its remaining occupants would be transferred to Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Once sheltering more than 10,000 people, Qualcomm Stadium was home to just 350 on Friday morning.
Thousands of people lost their homes this week to the wildfires that left an arc of destruction from Ventura County to the Mexican border.
In all, fires raced across 490,000 acres — or 765 square miles, 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.
Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County. The property damage there alone already has surpassed $1 billion.
Still unsettled is whether the San Diego Chargers will play their home game against the Houston Texans at Qualcomm on Sunday. Mayor Jerry Sanders said the stadium should be ready but indicated the decision will be made by the NFL and the team.
Officials have opened assistance centers in the hardest-hit communities, where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and even mental health counseling.
"The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that," San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. "The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people."
Schools remained canceled for thousands of students across the county as a few more ventured out and about – many with their faces covered in protective masks. An occasional light wind brought the smell of ash as officials debated its long-term effects.
But signs of upheaval remained with some parking lots near still-cordoned-off areas acting as campgrounds for the hundreds that still had yet to get word on whether their house was still standing.
Evacuees from Ramona though, had good news late Thursday, when officials reopened the town north of San Diego after a standoff over the treatment of sewage kept them from home.
A show of the federal government's support came Thursday when President Bush toured the fire-ravaged area with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bush pledged the government's cooperation.
"We want the people to know there's a better day ahead — that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life's going to be better," he said.
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.
In addition to the discovery of the four bodies believed to be illegal migrant workers, the wildfires are directly blamed for killing three other 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.
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.
Sean Clevenger's home was a rare sight — part of an oasis of seven unburned houses in a neighborhood that was largely destroyed by fire in the mountain community of Running Springs.
"I still can't believe this is my neighborhood," he said, staring across the street at a plume of flames rising from a broken gas main amid rubble.
"Right there was a red house and everything was green around it," he said. "Now I look out and I see a lot of sky through the trees."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.