SAN DIEGO – The NFL stadium where thousands of displaced residents sought refuge is closing as an evacuation center, a symbolic show of progress against wildfires still menacing Southern California.
Once sheltering more than 10,000 people, Qualcomm Stadium was home to just 350 on Friday morning. It was to close later in the day.
Across San Diego County, the region hardest hit by the firestorms that began last weekend, thousands of evacuees have been trickling back to neighborhoods stripped bare of houses, trees and the familiar signs of suburbia.
The lucky ones will find their homes still standing amid a blackened landscape. Others, like Robert Sanders, are not so fortunate.
The 56-year-old photographer returned to a smoldering mound that once was his rented house in the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo.
Among the possessions he lost to the flames and withering heat were his transparencies, melted inside a fire-resistant box, and a photograph of his father.
"I've lost my history," Sanders said. "All the work I've done for the past 30 years, it's all destroyed."
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 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."
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.
The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three 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.
Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.
In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.
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."