LOS ANGELES – Residents of the San Fernando Valley woke up Wednesday to brilliant blue skies mostly free of smoke and ash for the first time in four days.
Gone were the convulsive winds that at times reached gale force. Nowhere could Los Angeles police be found using bullhorns to order residents out of homes and away from deadly fires that have blackened more than 28 square miles and destroyed more than 50 homes.
The last evacuation orders for two big fire areas at opposite ends of the valley were lifted, though some locations were only open to residents.
The winds that helped spread the flames were slack, though temperatures were rising and the largest fire, which has consumed more than 20 square miles near Porter Ranch, remained only 20 percent contained. Incident commander Scott Poster said there were places where no fire lines had been established "so if the wind hits it, it could move."
Helicopters and air tankers were still attacking the flames. Fire officials said there were about 3,000 homes in the vicinity, and though some areas of the fire appeared to be extinguished, firefighters were digging into debris to make sure nothing was still burning.
With humidity low, the National Weather Service extended a red flag warning of risky fire conditions from Wednesday evening through Friday in many areas along the Southern California coast and east of Los Angeles.
The fires forced thousands of people to evacuate and were blamed for two deaths. One man died in the flames, and a motorist was killed in a crash as a fire neared a freeway.
For some residents in the valley's northwestern suburbs, the flames seemed more of a curiosity than a danger. One man spent Tuesday night on the trunk of his car outside his home and watched firefighters battle a blaze that had burned down nearby slopes.
In another neighborhood in Simi Valley, Gabriel Viola and Gheith Effarah readied important valuables and documents just in case they had to flee, but neither seemed worried about the fire spreading.
"You don't want to be completely dumb," Effarah said. "I've been living here eight years and this is the third time we've gone through this. The firefighters seem to be on the ball. It calms you down."
Fifteen homes and 47 outbuildings were destroyed in the Porter Ranch area, and another six homes were damaged, said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Ron Haralson.
Ten miles away, there was major progress against Los Angeles' other big wildfire. A 7 1/2-square-mile fire in the northeastern San Fernando Valley was 80 percent contained, and some evacuees were allowed to go home.
Thirty-eight mobile homes and a house were destroyed there.
Despite a ban on entry, some residents managed to sneak into the devastated Sky Terrace Lodge mobile home park, where some streets were a total loss — homes reduced to lumps of melted plastic and buckled wood.
Darlene and Ken Rede's home survived, but the house next door was gone. On their porch, a weather gauge was melted while a roll of paper towels hanging below it was untouched.
"Why did we get spared?" said Darlene Rede. "I feel so bad for the people, my emotions are running crazy."
Lisa Torell, 52, a 13-year resident, recounted fleeing as palm trees exploded into flames. She said she wrapped a sweater around her head as burning embers spat from the sky.
"It was like a nightmare — an earthquake and a hurricane all at once," she said.
Torell found her home intact. The top of a plum tree was singed, but her banana plants were untouched and hummingbirds drank from feeders hanging from her porch.
Southwest of the San Fernando Valley fires in Ventura County, a blaze erupted in Point Mugu State Park's La Jolla Canyon and grew to 20 acres just above Pacific Coast Highway. Rapid containment was expected.
On the north coast of San Diego County, a 6-square-mile fire at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton was 75 percent contained. Most evacuation orders were lifted for residents of about 1,500 homes in neighboring Oceanside and for many Marine Corps personnel and family members in military housing, but some remained in emergency shelters.
The outbreak of fires followed the weekend arrival of the first significant Santa Ana winds of the fall.
The notorious Santa Anas usually sweep in between October and February as cold, dry air descending over the Great Basin flows toward Southern California and squeezes through mountain passes and canyons.