While much of fire-ravaged Southern California lurched back toward an uneasy routine Friday and government officials made preparations for a long recovery, firefighters poised for another late-night stand against a persistent blaze in the rugged mountains of eastern Orange County.
Even as thousands of residents joyously returned to neighborhoods throughout the region, 100-foot-tall flames from the Santiago fire burned into the eastern end of Silverado Canyon. Many residents of the community on the edge of Cleveland National Forest were evacuated for the second time in less than a week. About 40 others would not budge from some of the roughly 750 homes there.
"It's an extremely active fire in Silverado Canyon right now," Rich Phelps, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman, said of the community, which was spared in several previous fires. "Things are pretty rough."
Exhausted and on edge, some of the evacuees who gathered in a nearby strip mall wept when authorities couldn't reassure them about whether they could stop the latest threat.
"It's sickening. We thought yesterday we had dodged the bullet. We heard the fire was 50% contained and away from Silverado Canyon," said Ray Verdugo, 55. "Now we're hearing that within the hour it could rip through here and take our homes."
Even in the areas where the most spectacular flames had been tamed, fire officials warned against complacency. "There's still a lot of little islands of fuel," Eric Kuck, a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain, said as his strike teams kept watch in the mountains of Orange County. "There are hot spots in the burn area we are watching, making sure the houses that were saved don't get lost."
Nine fires continued to burn Friday night, at the end of a weeklong siege that has included nearly three dozen separate blazes. The total acreage burned topped 500,000, only 12,000 acres more than had been reported a day earlier but more than double the size of all of New York City's five boroughs. The number of homes reported destroyed increased from 1,775 to 1,889. The death toll remained at seven.
In another day of multiple developments:
Authorities sought the public's help in finding a white Ford F-150 pickup that was seen in the area where the Santiago fire was started.
Fire crews were establishing a perimeter around the north end of the still-raging Slide fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. Although homes remained in danger, crews coming off other fires expanded the firefighting force by one-third, to almost 2,000.
The worst San Diego County blazes -- including the Witch fire, which earlier destroyed 1,061 homes -- burned into remote areas or had been partly contained.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order to speed benefits to victims. Of the coming recovery, the governor said: "I always say, this is the sprint. Now comes the marathon."
Authorities closed an emergency shelter at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium and bused the remaining evacuees, only about 115 of the nearly 13,000 once housed there, to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Much of the activity at week's end pointed to a return to normality. Big Bear Lake community leaders assured outsiders they were welcome in the resort community, with Highway 38 through Redlands and Highway 18 through Lucerne Valley open. The Wild Animal Park, in San Diego's San Pasqual Valley, reopened after hundreds of birds and small mammals were returned from evacuation points.
Youth sports leagues, which had canceled practices and games throughout the region, prepared to rev up for the weekend.
But the continuing threat became painfully evident near Running Springs, where a home spared in the initial firestorm ignited because of a lingering hot spot.
"The guys had just been in that area within an hour looking around and didn't see anything, and the next time they came through they saw a deck on fire," said Jack Froggatt, a Kern County battalion chief. A fire crew managed to save a portion of the home.
Rumors floated among residents and a few fire crews that high winds could return Sunday. But a National Weather Service official discounted that possibility.
"The really good news is there's still hardly any significant wind for the next seven days," said Mike Lavis, a weather service meteorologist in San Diego.
A day after he toured the fire zones with President Bush, Schwarzenegger issued an executive order suspending the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance, waiving fees for the replacement of certain vital documents and asking the Franchise Tax Board and the Board of Equalization to help victims obtain extensions.
In Washington, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the House and Senate to include $1 billion in fire relief in 2008 appropriations funding, the bulk of it for suppression, hazardous-fuels reduction, restoration and reconstruction.