As California evacuees return, new hardships await

RAMONA, Calif. — With some of the worst wildfires dying down, many Southern Californians lucky enough to find their homes still standing could nevertheless face hardships for weeks to come, including polluted air, no electricity and no drinking water.

Power lines are down in many burned areas, and the smoke and ash could irritate people’s lungs for as long as the blazes keep burning.

Randy and Aimee Powers returned to Ramona, in San Diego County, on Friday to find their home without electricity or water, after fire trucks drained the town’s reservoir.

“It’s better to be at home. We’re going to stick it out and do whatever we have to do up here to survive. We’ll make it through,” said Randy Powers.

Residents of 10,000 Ramona homes who called the water department when they found their water turned off were greeted by a recorded phone message that said: “We are in extreme water crisis situation. No water use is allowed.”

Thousands of people continued returning to their neighborhoods as shelters across Southern California began shutting down. The largest, Qualcomm Stadium, which had housed 10,000 refugees at the height of the disaster, was being emptied and readied for Sunday’s NFL football game between the San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans.

While the danger had eased considerably since the weekend, many fires were still burning out of control.

In San Diego County, only one of five major fires was more than 50 percent contained. In the Lake Arrowhead resort area of San Bernardino County, one of two fires that have destroyed more than 300 homes was 75 percent contained, while the other was only 20 percent contained. A blaze in Orange County that blackened 27,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes near Irvine was 35 percent contained.

Authorities believe the blaze was deliberately set and asked for help finding a white Ford F-150 seen in the area where the fire started.

One of five people who have been arrested on arson charges since the wildfires broke out pleaded not guilty Friday. Police said witnesses spotted Catalino Pineda, 41, starting a fire Wednesday on a San Fernando Valley hillside. He is not linked to one of the major blazes.

In all, more than a dozen fires had raced across more than 500,000 acres by Friday. At least three people and possibly seven have been killed by flames. Seven others died of various causes after being evacuated.

About 1,700 homes have been destroyed, and damage has been put at more than $1 billion in San Diego County alone.

About 12,600 San Diego Gas and Electric customers remained without power Friday, said utility spokeswoman April Bolduc.

“We can’t flush the toilets, and we’ve opened up the floodgates and are letting everyone back. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing,” said Brad Fisher of the Ramona Community Emergency Response Team. “There’s a real pioneer mentality.”

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