DIAMOND BAR, Calif. – Winds were calm again Monday, allowing firefighters to make gains on two raging wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of residents to flee as anxious residents of a Los Angeles mobile home park were allowed to inspect their gutted properties.
Two large vans are carrying residents past the rubble and stopping briefly at some properties. An ambulance followed in case any of the distraught residents experienced health problems.
The trips are expected to last throughout Monday.
Firefighters were able to save about 120 homes at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park as the fire burned in Los Angeles' Sylmar area Saturday.
Wind gusts had peaked at more than 70 mph at the height of the fires over the weekend, but on Sunday they had weakened to about 20 mph, the National Weather Service said.
"It's wonderful news," Angela Garbiso, a spokeswoman with Orange County Fire Authority, said Monday. "When it calms down, it obviously makes it easier for us to handle this massive undertaking."
The fires that started Thursday night and burned in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, have burned nearly 41,000 acres or 64 square miles.
In Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the fires chewed through nearly 29,000 acres and were pushing toward Diamond Bar in Los Angeles County. A major aerial attack on Sunday raised containment to 40 percent. More than 26,000 people had evacuated from Orange County alone, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, a 10,000-acre fire that hit hard in the Sylmar area of northern Los Angeles on Saturday had moved into the Placerita Canyon area of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains and was burning vigorously, but well away from homes. It was also 40 percent contained.
The Santa Barbara-area fire that swept through tony Montecito has burned 1,940 acres and was 95 percent surrounded Monday.
The cause of all the fires were under investigation, although officials labeled the Santa Barbara-area fire "human caused," said Doug Lannon, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Lannon said the fire started in a Montecito landmark known to be a popular hangout for teenagers. He said it was possible someone was smoking in the brush or started a campfire there. Investigators have set up an anonymous tip line in hopes of getting the public's help in finding out who started the fire.
Far away from the flames, the smell of smoke pervaded metropolitan Los Angeles. Downtown skyscrapers were silhouettes in an opaque sky and concerns about air quality kept many people indoors. Organizers on Sunday canceled a marathon in suburban Pasadena where 8,000 runners had planned to participate.
Officials warned of another bad air day on Monday, and classes were canceled at dozens of schools near the fire zones in Orange County.
Many evacuees began the agonizing process of making their way back to their destroyed homes.
Starting Monday morning, anxious residents of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, where 484 homes were destroyed by fire early Saturday, will be allowed to return to inspect their property. Firefighters were able to save about 120 homes in the community, but many were badly damaged.
Cadaver dogs had been searching the burned units to determine whether anybody perished during the fast-moving fire, but so far no bodies have been found, police said.
Tracy Burns knew her Sylmar home was gone but still wanted to get into the gated community to see what remained.
"Even those of us who know there's nothing left, we want to go in and kick over the rubble and see if we can find something, anything," Burns said.
Tears welled in her partner Wendy Dannenberg's eyes as she echoed: "If I can find one broken piece of one dish — anything, anything at all."