Federal officials already have approved more than $9.3 million in grants and loans to victims of Southern California's wildfires, "and those numbers are expected to go up exponentially," a government aid spokesman said Wednesday.
"This is just the beginning," said George Thune, a public information officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Officials said that more than 9,500 individuals, families and businesses in Southern California had registered for FEMA grants and Small Business Administration loans by Wednesday morning and that thousands more applications were expected.
The announcement came as the last mandatory evacuation orders were lifted and thousands of residents streamed back to their homes in the fire-ravaged high country of San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Firefighters were still snuffing out scattered hot spots in the mountains above San Bernardino, and voluntary evacuations were still being requested in Arrowbear, Blue Jay, Cedarpines Park, Crest Forest, Crestline, Green Valley Lake, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Gregory, Rimforest, Running Springs, Skyforest, Twin Peaks, Valley of Enchantment and Waterman Canyon.
In San Diego County, some residents whose homes had been destroyed were given motel vouchers by the American Red Cross.
"I thank God for what they've already given me," said Dale Busby, who was being put up for a week at the Motel 6 in Escondido.
At the nearby Mount Vernon Inn, Belinda Canez, 38, and her two teenage daughters shared a room with twin beds provided by the Red Cross. Canez, who lost her Valley Center house and all her belongings in the Paradise fire, also was given a credit card worth $600 and clothing donated by the Salvation Army and local churches.
"When you've got two kids, it's not easy," she said. "You've got to buy underwear, socks, towels. We had to start from scratch."
Almost 2,000 structures damaged or destroyed by the fires have been inspected, with inspections scheduled for 600 more.
Asked about an additional 800 to 1,000 buildings reportedly lost in the fires, Ana Marcello, a FEMA spokeswoman, said, "they haven't registered yet."
Marcello said that as of Wednesday, FEMA had approved $1.8 million in grants for housing assistance and $2.8 million for medical care and other personal needs. She said the SBA had approved $4.7 million in loans for rebuilding and repairs.
The loans and grants cover uninsured losses in the fires, in many cases supplementing the coverage by private insurance companies.
Marcello said those requiring immediate assistance for food and other needs can apply to the Red Cross and local emergency-assistance agencies.
To simplify the registration process, applicants for any sort of public assistance in dealing with fire losses can call (800) 621-3362. Calls will be routed to FEMA, the SBA, the Red Cross or an appropriate local agency.
Fire victims also can apply in person at nine assistance centers, in Claremont, Camarillo, San Bernardino, Perris, Camarillo, San Diego, Alpine, Ramona and Valley Center. Marcello said applicants should bring whatever documentation they can find pertaining to insurance coverage and property ownership.
FEMA and the American Bar Assn. have set up a hotline -- (800) 310-7029 -- for free legal advice for fire victims.
The line is staffed by more than 150 volunteer lawyers who are providing advice and referring victims to pro bono lawyers who can provide in-depth advocacy.
State Health Director Diana M. Bonta advised Southern Californians to use caution in cleaning up ashes from the fires, which blackened more than 740,000 acres in Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Bonta said that although the ash is relatively nontoxic, it may be irritating to the skin, throat and lungs.
Residents returning to the San Bernardino mountains were warned Wednesday that roads in the area were especially dangerous because of burned-out signs and guardrails. Gas, water and electrical service were still out in several neighborhoods.
The Red Cross dispatched seven trucks with food, water emergency and cleaning supplies to the area.
April Burns, however, said she was not ready to return. The utilities were still out at her home in Lake Arrowhead, and she elected to spend at least one more night at a new Red Cross shelter at the National Orange Show events center in San Bernardino. "It's too cold up there," she said.
Fewer than 200 were expected to spend the night in the new evacuation shelter Wednesday night, compared with the more than 1,000 housed in the original shelter at San Bernardino International Airport during the height of the fires.
In San Diego County, Busby relaxed in his motel room as he recalled the 10 days since flames from the Paradise fire forced him to flee his rented trailer in Valley Center.
After spending several nights at a church in Escondido and a high school gym in Valley Center, the 53-year-old dog trainer was presented with a Red Cross voucher for the Motel 6.
One night, the Red Cross also provided him with a steak dinner.
"I always wanted to eat at an Outback Steakhouse, but I never made it," he said. "Then they sent the steak to me."
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Help for victims
Fire victims can call a toll-free number, (800) 621-3362, to apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration, the American Red Cross and a variety of local agencies.
Those applying for FEMA grants and SBA loans also can register in person at Hughes Community Center, 1700 Danbury Road, Claremont.
the following locations:
San Bernardino International Airport, San Bernardino.
* Public Assistance Center, 730 Paseo Camarillo, Camarillo.
* Scripps Recreational Center, 11454 Blue Cypress Drive, San Diego.
* Public Assistance Center, 1347 Tavern Road, Alpine.
* Old Post Office, 325 6th St., Ramona.
* Public Assistance Center, 28565 Cole Grade Road, Valley Center.
* Perris Fair Group, 18700 Lake Perris Drive, Perris.
Los Angeles Times