As firefighters continued to gain control of wildfires smoldering across Southern California, residents of the once-threatened mountain communities around Big Bear Lake trickled home Sunday, stocking up on groceries, unpacking heirlooms from crammed SUVs and finding, to their relief, that their homes and neighborhoods had not been harmed.
"We got so lucky up here," said nurse's aide Julie Eberhard, 45. "I thought the whole mountain was going to go up."
But in San Diego County, where more than 2,400 houses have been lost to the Paradise and Cedar fires, residents tried to come to grips with a more sobering reality.
At St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Scripps Ranch, where 345 homes were destroyed, 1,300 people crowded into an emotional 9 a.m. Mass. The parishioners donated $14,000 in cash and checks toward the church's relief effort for fire victims.
"The response was incredible," said Father James Poulsen, who delivered a sermon that he composed while looking out at the charred remains of his own backyard fence. "People hung around for the longest time. People were reluctant to go home."
The region's cool, moist weather continued to dull the force of the wildfires that have raged in five counties over the last week, killing 20 people, destroying thousands of buildings and displacing countless Southern California residents.
In the popular ski and vacation areas around Big Bear Lake, evidence of the fires, which were bearing down fast on the communities Wednesday, was hardly evident, save for the throngs of firefighters on the streets and water-dropping helicopters that occasionally buzzed in the cloudy skies on their way to a nearby refueling stop.
"It's just great to be back and unpacking everything," said Fawnskin resident Mike Drysdale, who had driven back to town with his girlfriend after being evacuated Wednesday. "We're just really happy everything turned out OK."
A few miles to the west, however, firefighters around Lake Arrowhead and Crestline were still struggling to get control of the last remnants of the Old fire. An evacuation order remained in effect for much of that area, forcing some residents to continue to wait it out in nearby shelters.
Some people said they were not in a hurry to get back because authorities had told them their homes had no electricity.
"It's hard being here," said Leah Christensen, 56, who lives in the community of Blue Jay, near Lake Arrowhead, but has been staying at a shelter at San Bernardino International Airport. "But why go home if you can't survive up there? I'd like to go home when it's safe, when the power has been restored."
Another woman at the shelter, Pepper Oberg, 59, of Crestline, had already learned that her house had been destroyed by the fire. She and her family have rented a house in San Bernardino. "I feel bad, in a way, not being able to go home," she said. "But I thank God for those [who] have something to go home to."
Though much of the immediate danger in the region has receded with the onset of cool weather, officials said much difficult work remains.
Firefighters who have surrounded the massive fires with hoses and unburnable plow lines now face the "dirty, gritty, mano-a-mano job" of extinguishing smoldering patches on the edge of the blazes that could still breach the newly established perimeters, said Bernie Pineda, a spokesman for the joint command fighting the San Bernardino County fires.
And the work is still dangerous. A firefighter near California 18 north of San Bernardino was injured by a falling tree. He was evacuated by helicopter and was in stable condition at a nearby hospital, said Mike Davidson, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry.
San Bernardino County
Typically, the communities around Big Bear Lake, which are home to about 20,000 full-time residents, would be rather sleepy on a Sunday morning before the winter ski season, which has been one of the area's main attraction for visitors for nearly a century.
But things were often eerily quiet this Sunday. At times, it seemed the only vehicles on the road were police cars, firetrucks and news vans.
In the quaint, Alpine-style village frequented by tourists, the movie theater, souvenir shops and ski outfitters were closed. Some mini-mall parking lots were deceptively crowded with cars, RVs and trailers that had been parked there by evacuees. As a steady stream of residents made their way back up the mountain, they seemed to stay in their houses, unpacking and taking stock.
But there were signs of life. The Stater Bros. grocery store was doing a brisk business by lunchtime. The Bear Mountain ski resort had even turned on its snow-making machines.
In the nearby cabin-studded community of Fawnskin, the only smoke smell came from the chimneys of newly returned residents, who were using their fireplaces to warm up because gas service had not been restored.