LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Thousands of Californians forced from their neighborhoods by this week's wind-whipped wildfires returned home on Friday, some of them finding their property unscathed amid the destruction and others discovering nothing but blackened rubble.
In San Diego County, where an estimated 500,000 people fled the smoke and flames in the largest mass evacuation in modern California history, lines of cars streamed back into fire-scarred mountain communities that had been left ghost towns.
Traffic was jammed for miles as weary residents made their way one at a time past police checkpoints. In some neighborhoods the hop-scotching fires left a single home standing while burning everything else to the ground.
Steve Conner, 62, whose suburban San Diego home was one of 30 on his block reduced to ruins, described the moment he confronted the loss of his house and neighborhood.
"Emotionally, it was just beyond belief," the Vietnam War infantry veteran said, his voice shaking. "It's just totally wiped out. All the trees are black ... It just reminded me of Vietnam. It just reminded me of a war zone."
As of Friday afternoon, the wildfires killed at least 12 people, had blackened some 800 square miles (2,072 sq km) of Southern California and destroyed 2,000 homes and other structures. Losses were expected to top $1 billion in hard-hit San Diego County alone.
The few hundred remaining people in the largest emergency shelter -- San Diego's Qualcomm sports stadium -- were being moved to several smaller centers. The stadium, which at one time had housed and fed more than 10,000 people, was due to close Friday.
Stores in the deserted communities began to reopen, some with signs in their windows thanking firefighters for their efforts. Crews removed fallen trees and repaired phone lines that were blown down by the high winds.
After six days of relentless blazes from Los Angeles south to the Mexican border, most of the raging fires had either been doused or brought under relative control as the emergency turned to the long business of recovery.
'THE BEST DAY OF THE WEEK'
But several major fires still burned out of control, including the Harris fire south of San Diego that threatened some two dozen homes, and the Santiago fire in Orange County -- although favorable weather was expected to help firefighters rein them in.
"Today will be the best day of the week for firefighters," National Weather Service forecaster Andrew Rorke said.
The destruction was random, with some trees half burned and others half green, some hillsides left charred moonscapes and others untouched. In some neighborhoods, the burned remnants of homes sat next to pristine ranch houses.
"This has been an extraordinary week of course for people of California," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a news conference. "The people of California have experienced some of the most devastating and difficult fires in the history of California and it's not over yet."
In parts of San Diego County, residents were told to drink only bottled water because of damage to water pipes.
As families began returning, the chances rose for more grisly discoveries. Fire officials said more bodies could be found in remote areas where people had refused to leave their homes, or who were overrun by the speed of the inferno.
Four burned bodies found in the path of the wildfires on Thursday raised the death toll, either directly from the flames or while evacuating, to at least 12 people. The four were thought to be illegal immigrants overrun by fire near the Mexican border as they walked through rugged terrain.
As officials began the massive clean-up and recovery operation, a risk firm said insured losses would likely be $900 million to $1.6 billion.