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SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – More people returned to their homes Friday as firefighters made significant progress against a huge wildfire burning in Southern California's San Bernardino National Forest, but that was tempered by the announcement that at least 96 homes and 213 outbuildings were destroyed.
Johanna Santore was among those left homeless. She was running an errand Tuesday when the fire charged through her neighborhood. She tried to rush home to rescue the family's four dogs, six cats and hamster but was blocked by closed roads.
Frantic for answers, she posted messages about her pets on Facebook. A group of animal rescue volunteers saw her pleas and offered to check on the animals.
They found the house in smoldering ruins — with no signs of the pets.
"I'm actually feeling numb," said Santore, who fled with her husband and granddaughter to an evacuation center. "It's like a nightmare."
Thousands of residents chased from their mountain and desert homes were slowly beginning to take stock of their losses as the preliminary damage assessment was released for the blaze that erupted Tuesday in drought-parched canyons 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
Firefighters initially struggled to get the towering flames under control but later made dramatic progress in corralling the fire that scorched nearly 58 square miles and was 26 percent contained. Plans were underway to demobilize some of the nearly 1,600 firefighters.
Fire spokesman Brad Pitassi said crews were in defensive posture until Thursday night when they reached a turning point, aided by a buildup of ground forces and a fast-paced air attack with retardant and water drops.
"That number could have been much higher," he said of the destroyed homes and buildings, noting that at one point the fire had grown by 30,000 acres in 24 hours.
Katie and Johnathon Havens piled their 1-year-old son and teacup Chihuahua into their RV as flames neared.
The Havens thought they had lost everything when a map of the fire was released. They later discovered their house was intact after they were able to access a camera they had placed inside the home.
"It's very comforting to know the house is still there," Katie Havens said. "I'm pretty sure we're going to go back and have neighbors who don't have homes anymore. The community is never going to be the same."
A prolonged drought has transformed swaths of California into tinderboxes, ready to ignite. Several other wildfires were burning in the state, including a blaze in rural Santa Barbara County that prompted the evacuation of a pair of campgrounds.
In the southern Sierra Nevada, another blaze feeding on dense timber in Sequoia National Forest forced the evacuation of several tiny hamlets.
In mountains north of San Francisco, a 6-square-mile blaze was 65 percent contained after destroying at least 268 structures, including 175 homes and eight businesses, in the working-class community of Lower Lake. All evacuation orders have been canceled.
At the height of the fire east of Los Angeles, some 82,000 people were under evacuation orders. A small number of residents have been allowed to return home, but fire officials could not say when all the evacuations would be lifted.
No deaths have been reported and the cause of the fire was under investigation. Crews continued to sift through burned regions to tally the damage.
Michelle Keeney took a double-whammy hit. Not only did the fire level her house, but it also engulfed the Summit Inn, a popular Route 66 diner where she was the general manager.
"I was in utter disbelief," said Keeney, who managed to salvage her father's silver ID bracelet and an antique gun he had from World War II.
Max Torres didn't know whether his house was safe until he and his wife returned Thursday night. A decade ago, another wildfire narrowly missed the couple's home.
"They saved our house last time. They saved everything," he said. "And they did it again."
The Santores weren't as lucky. Volunteers who drove to their house found a moonscape. Some of the neighbors' homes were still standing, seemingly intact.
Before the fire roared through, Johanna Santore had redecorated her granddaughter's room in a zebra pattern and added a loft bed.