Residents in limbo as wildfire burns in California

Published 9:40 am Friday, August 19, 2016

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Twisted metal gates and rusted mailboxes remained where houses once stood. Flames had turned a lot full of cars — including some vintage models — into a junkyard of hollowed-out shells. Countless trees were scorched or gone.

Scenes of destruction were everywhere Thursday after a huge wildfire sped through mountains and high desert 60 miles east of Los Angeles so swiftly that it took seasoned firefighters off guard.

But the day also brought the biggest gains yet against the blaze, with containment jumping from 22 percent, up from just 4 percent when the day began. The fire has burned 56 square miles.

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An aerial flyover revealed significant property loss, but crews were just beginning to comb through the rubble to document the devastation.

“Most of the areas where there was structural damage, they’re still smoldering,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jake Rodriguez said.

Many residents remained in limbo, unable to go home and wondering whether anything would be left when they can.

“I want it to be over, but more than anything I just want to know, ‘Is my house still there?’ ” Lisa Gregory said as she sat in a lawn chair under a tree at an evacuation center.

At its height, more than 34,000 homes and about 82,000 residents were under evacuation warnings.

While the east side of the fire near the desert was brought partly under control and some evacuees on that side were allowed to return home, the west side’s hillsides were still showing heavy flames and thick smoke.

Meanwhile, a new fire broke out in rural Santa Barbara County, quickly surging to about 500 acres and prompting the evacuation of a pair of campgrounds.

Another blaze near Lake Isabella in Kern and Tulare counties in the center of the state had burned more than two square miles.

During five years of drought, California’s wildlands have seen a continuous streak of destructive and sometimes deadly fires. No deaths have been reported in the latest fire, but crews assessing property damage were using cadaver dogs during searches.

The dry vegetation is like firewood, said fire information officer Sean Collins.