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Evacuation orders lifted for 80,000 people as California wildfires contained

Published 22/08/2016

Cars and trailers destroyed by the Blue Cut fire in Phelan, California (AP)
Cars and trailers destroyed by the Blue Cut fire in Phelan, California (AP)

Five days after an explosive wildfire in Southern California sent thousands fleeing for their lives, the authorities lifted all evacuation orders to allow residents to return home.

About 82,000 people were ordered to leave their properties on Tuesday when the fire broke out 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

Most of those residents are returning to find their homes intact, though not all. A preliminary damage assessment found 105 homes and 216 outbuildings destroyed across the rural, mountainous terrain where large areas have been turned black.

"This fire did not go through a dense community, like some fires do," fire spokesman Costa Dillon said. "Almost all of this area is sparsely populated."

The blaze that burned nearly 58 square miles was 83% contained on Sunday morning, up from 73% the evening before. Firefighters were going from property to property in the areas most heavily hit to tackle any lingering flames and hot spots.

"You don't want somebody to come back to a neighbourhood where a fire could suddenly flare up on the property next door from something still smouldering," Mr Dillon said.

Fire officials briefed residents at an evacuation centre on Sunday at the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds where about 15 residents remained.

Johanna Santore, 63, her husband and their 10-year-old granddaughter were among those who learned they are still not being permitted to return home.

The family's home and nearly all their belongings were destroyed in the blaze.

Ms Santore said the family was "holding up," but that when everyone was asleep she had gone outside and cried thinking of the family's lost pets and mementoes.

The family were out running an errand when the fire broke out and were unable to return to save anything.

Four dogs, six cats and a hamster left behind are missing.

"I'm hoping someone is stuck around hiding someplace," she said. "And if I start calling, they might recognise our voices."

A prolonged drought has transformed swathes of California into tinderboxes, ready to ignite. Six other wildfires were burning in the state, including one in San Luis Obispo County that forced the closure of the historic Hearst Castle over the weekend.

That fire grew to nearly 38 square miles on Sunday and was 35% contained.

Fire spokeswoman Jaime Garrett said the blaze was moving in the opposite direction to the Hearst Castle, a popular tourist attraction that houses a large art collection which belonged to media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

In rural Santa Barbara County, a 15-square-mile wildfire forced the evacuation of two campsites.

In the southern Sierra Nevada, another blaze in Sequoia National Forest forced the evacuation of several tiny hamlets.

In Northern California, fire crews were gaining control of an arson fire that destroyed 189 homes.

A month-long blaze burning near California's scenic Big Sur is not expected to be fully contained until the end of September. Cal Fire said the fire has destroyed 57 homes and charred 133 square miles. It is 60% contained.


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