President Bush walks with Kendra Jeffcoate and her husband, Jay, right, through the remains of their home Thursday in San Diego.AP photo
SAN DIEGO — The Santa Ana winds that helped fires explode across Southern California were dying down Thursday, but the fight was far from over: Despite a massive aerial assault, several blazes remained far from containment as flames drew perilously close to thousands of homes.
Some of the hundreds of thousands of evacuees were being allowed back into their neighborhoods, and shelters were emptying. Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, which sheltered more than 10,000 people at the height of the evacuations, had just 2,500 people left Thursday morning.
Crews found two burned bodies in a gutted house north of San Diego, authorities said Thursday, raising the number of deaths directly caused by the fire to three. The San Diego medical examiner’s office listed seven other deaths as connected to the blazes because all who died were evacuees.
More than 482,000 acres — about 753 square miles — were burned in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border. In San Diego County, which received the worst of the fires, crews cut fire lines around the major blazes, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained, and more than 8,500 homes remained threatened.
To the northeast, in the San Bernardino County mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said 16,000 homes were in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.
The fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters that dumped more than 30 loads of water.
In Orange County, firefighters lost ground overnight on a nearly 23,000-acre fire.
President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, took an aerial tour of the burn areas with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It’s a sad situation out there in Southern California,” Bush said outside the White House before leaving for California. “I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts. They just need to know a lot of folks care about them.”
So far, at least 15 fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes in Southern California since late Saturday.
The hot, dry Santa Ana winds that have whipped the blazes into a destructive, indiscriminate fury since the weekend were expected to all but disappear. “That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.
Officials continued to lift evacuation orders, the latest in Escondido, which was particularly hard hit.
Despite the improving news, nearly 18,000 customers in the San Diego area remained without power Thursday.