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Fire evacuees leave San Diego stadium, head home to heartbreaking scenes
California Wildfire 5142475
Office supply business owner Bruce Howe, an avid classic car collector looks down at a rare 1930 Model A Station Wagon, garaged at his burned home in the Rancho Santa Fe community in San Diego, Calif. , Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007. - photo by Associated Press
    SAN DIEGO — The football stadium where thousands of displaced residents sought refuge is closing as an evacuation center, symbolic progress against wildfires menacing Southern California.
    Once sheltering more than 10,000 people, Qualcomm Stadium was emptying rapidly Friday morning and was to close later in the day.
    Norman Graczyk, who spent the past four nights at Qualcomm with his wife and their four sons, was packing up to head back to their apartment complex in Ramona.
    ‘‘We’re kind of tired of staying here,’’ said Graczyk, 43, as his sons played with a stuffed soccer ball near the two tents that had been the family’s refuge since Monday. ‘‘We want to go home and rest.’’
    Though several blazes still burned Friday across San Diego County, the region hardest hit by the firestorms that began last weekend, thousands of evacuees have been trickling back to neighborhoods stripped bare.
    The lucky ones will find their homes still standing amid a blackened landscape. Thousands of others are not so fortunate.
    Robert Sanders returned to a smoldering mound that once was his rented house in the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo.
    Among the possessions the a 56-year-old photographer lost were his transparencies, melted inside a fire-resistant box, and a photograph of his father.
    ‘‘I’ve lost my history,’’ Sanders said. ‘‘All the work I’ve done for the past 30 years, it’s all destroyed.’’
    Among the structures threatened Friday was the Palomar Observatory. Crews were clearing brush and lighting back burns around the landmark observatory, said Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
    The observatory, home to the world’s largest telescope when it was dedicated in 1948, did not appear to be in immediate danger, said observatory spokesman Scott Kardel, who had been evacuated but was in contact with staff who remained.
    To the southeast, the Witch Fire, which already has destroyed more than 1,000 homes, was churning its way toward Julian. The town of 3,000, nestled in the rolling hills of a popular apple-growing region, was under mandatory evacuation.
    East of San Diego, firefighters also were trying to keep flames from Lake Morena, which is surrounded by hundreds of homes.
    Friday’s flare-ups underscored the wildfires’ continuing threat, even as crews were making rapid progress.
    ‘‘Until you get a control line around each and every individual fire, there’s a potential of them blowing out anywhere,’’ Daskoski said.
    In all, fires have raced across 490,000 acres — or 765 square miles. They were fanned early in the week by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.
    Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County. The property damage there alone surpassed $1 billion.
    Still unsettled is whether the San Diego Chargers will play their home game against the Houston Texans at Qualcomm on Sunday. Mayor Jerry Sanders said the stadium should be ready but indicated the decision will be made by the NFL and the team.
    Officials have opened assistance centers where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and mental health counseling.
    ‘‘The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that,’’ San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. ‘‘The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people.’’
    The state has come under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires’ crucial first hours. An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes were grounded by bureaucracy as flames spread.
    The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry ‘‘fire spotters’’ who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made flying too dangerous.
    Additionally, the National Guard’s C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-needed retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.
    ‘‘When you look at what’s happened, it’s disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that’s put tens of thousands of people in danger,’’ Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.
    The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home.
    Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.
    In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.
    Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Martha Mendoza in Running Springs, Scott Lindlaw in Julian, Gillian Flaccus in Jamul and Thomas Watkins, Jacob Adelman, Chelsea J. Carter, Jeremiah Marquez and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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