Crews Make Progress on S. California Fires

Firefighters aided by milder weather got the upper hand on wildfires (search) burning across more than 26,000 acres in Southern California (search), allowing hundreds of people evacuated from threatened areas to start returning home.

Evacuation orders were lifted Wednesday in areas endangered by two large fires in Riverside County, an inland region east of Los Angeles, that devoured thousands of acres of grass and low-lying scrub.

Cooler temperatures and diminishing wind encouraged firefighters to attack the blazes aggressively Wednesday night.

"I hope the weather holds out," said Jane Scribner, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry (search). "It really does make a difference."

A marine layer was expected to move into Southern California, increasing moisture that could help slow the spread of the fires. Temperatures were expected to drop to the low- to mid-80s for the rest of the week.

The nearly 16,500-acre Cerrito Fire in Riverside County had threatened about 1,000 homes and 12 commercial buildings in the northeastern Lake Elsinore area, but was 65 percent contained.

Full containment of the blaze, burning in Temescal Canyon near Interstate 15, was expected Friday morning, a CDF official said.

Corona resident Shannon Allee, 31, said she worried about the fire because the housing development overlooks a swath of dry hillside covered with wild grass and brush. Allee said her neighbors have been unable to renew their insurance policies in recent months because of the high risk of a major blaze.

"We're uninsurable because we are in a fire zone, so we're concerned about that, too," she said.

The 8,945-acre Eagle Fire in Riverside County, south of Temecula, destroyed 41 structures, including 14 homes, officials said. Containment was estimated at 70 percent and full containment was expected by Friday.

The fire was moving away from homes and a mandatory evacuation order was lifted late Wednesday, said CDF information officer Steve Rahn.

In Santa Barbara County, the 1,110-acre Cachuma Fire in the Los Padres National Forest was 20 percent contained. In San Diego County, the 2,050-acre India Fire on the Camp Pendleton Marine base reach full containment early Wednesday.

Fire season was declared three weeks earlier this year than last year because of dry weather and a tree-killing bark beetle infestation.

Authorities have charged Richard Drew Brown, 44, with recklessly causing the Cerrito fire. Witnesses told authorities Brown dragged a large piece of steel behind his vehicle, creating sparks that started several fires in Temescal Canyon, the forestry department said.

An arraignment for Brown, a self-employed handyman who reportedly had intended to sell the metal for scrap, was rescheduled Wednesday to May 14. He was being held on $25,000 bail, and could receive up to seven years in prison if convicted of the two felony counts.