The series of firestorms that laid siege to large swaths of Southern California over the last week had been mostly tamed by Sunday, as residents turned to worship and cleanup, and firefighters appeared to be corralling the few remaining blazes.
Evacuation orders throughout the region had largely been lifted by noon Sunday. In the seven Southern California counties affected by the fires, 1,454 people remained in public shelters that had held well over 20,000 only days before.
By nightfall, three more fires had been contained, and firefighters said they had all but contained one more.
Optimism over improving conditions was tinged, nonetheless, with caution: Three fires were only two-thirds to three-fourths contained by Sunday night, and 2,007 homes had been lost.
"We've turned a corner here," said Frank McCarton, chief deputy director in the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. "But we have a long road for recovery, and we need to focus on that now."
Throughout the region, fire victims and their neighbors turned to the job of recovery, some starting with spiritual renewal as congregants of Malibu Presbyterian Church gathered Sunday at the Malibu Performing Arts Center -- down the hill from where their 50-year-old church lay in ruins -- and a small group of evacuees took part in services at Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, which is being used as a shelter.
At Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Chargers fans filled the stands where fire victims had sat only days before.
In neighborhoods throughout the region, residents ventured home, some finding little more than ashes and others learning to their amazement that their precious belongings had been spared.
"We are on to the recovery stage," said Michelle Sheffler, 41, who lost her home in San Diego's Rancho Bernardo community. "I see people moving forward."
Still, firefighters and others cautioned that the long battle was not yet over. The Santiago fire in Orange County was 65% contained as of Sunday night and was not expected to be fully surrounded until Friday. The Harris fire in San Diego County was 70% contained and was expected to be encircled by Wednesday.
It will take months or even years to rebuild the homes, businesses and the Malibu church that succumbed to the 35 fires that swept through seven counties.
Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that if high winds return, the fires could flare up again.
"We definitely are closing in on it," he said. "The bulk of the fires are fully contained or near containment, unless we get some adverse weather to kick us back into active fire."
The most destructive of the blazes, San Diego County's Witch fire, had been 90% contained -- after destroying 1,040 homes and 30 businesses and killing two people.
The Rice fire near Fallbrook -- 206 homes destroyed -- and the Horno/Ammo fire at Camp Pendleton were fully contained Sunday, officials said, as was the Ranch fire in northern Los Angeles County -- the first of the fires.
Similarly, San Bernardino County's Grass Valley fire, which claimed 174 homes, and Slide fire, which took 200 homes, were nearing total containment.
Significant work remained to gain control of the Santiago fire in eastern Orange County and the Poomacha fire in northeastern San Diego County. But both were more than 50% contained and neither posed an immediate threat to homes or businesses.
The series of blazes, which once stretched from Ventura County to south of the U.S.-Mexico border, will go down as among the most destructive in recent California history. The fires destroyed 2,813 structures. They charred 518,489 acres -- an area more than double the size of New York City -- while killing seven people and injuring 113 firefighters and 26 civilians.
Only two recent fire disasters have taken a heavier toll: the 2003 firestorm that destroyed 3,500 homes while striking many of the same mountain communities and the 1991 Oakland hills fire, which took about 3,000 homes.
Most fire victims had returned home by Sunday. Red Cross officials announced that they had closed 14 of 20 shelters.
The number of evacuees housed in public shelters throughout the seven-county region had dipped to 1,454, said Greg Renick, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services.
Symbolic of the shift was San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, which last week had housed up to 13,000 of the displaced, but which Sunday again became the home of professional football's San Diego Chargers.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the game with the coin flip and then thanked the emergency workers in attendance.
Firefighters led the hometown Chargers onto the field, where they proceeded to drub the Houston Texans, 35-10.
During the game, Schwarzenegger went to the private box of Chargers owner Dean Spanos to phone President Bush, according to a spokesman.