updated 11/3/2003 8:17:06 AM ET 2003-11-03T13:17:06

With the Southern California wildfires nearly contained, a wave of residents returned to the San Bernardino Mountains to see if their homes survived one of the most destructive infernos.

IN THE COMMUNITY of Cedar Glen, owners of about 350 homes found only devastation.

“The house is completely gone, nothing,” Pedro Helguera, 52, said of the home he and his wife had lived in for 24 years. “We’ve got to start from the bottom.”

The blaze, known as the Old Fire, was among a barrage of wildfires that have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 3,400 homes and burned nearly 750,000 acres across Southern California.

Business owner Marcia Ledkins was among the more fortunate of the thousands of people who fled the resort town of Big Bear Lake a week ago as wind-driven flames closed in. She reopened her liquor store and deli Sunday, giving away coffee, doughnuts and sandwiches to anyone who stopped in.

“We’re happy to be home and see everything’s safe,” she said.

The fire was 72 percent contained after burning more than 91,000 acres and destroying 851 homes.

In San Diego County, the 281,000-acre Cedar fire - the largest individual blaze in California history - was 90 percent contained Sunday after burning for six days in the mountains northeast of San Diego.

In all, five fires in three counties were not yet fully contained Sunday.

Firefighters have been aided by wet, cool weather that moved in on Thursday. Santa Ana winds had been expected to return as soon as Monday, but U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ann Westling said the winds probably won’t return for another week.

“Things are looking a lot better today than they were yesterday,” she said.

Still, not everyone was allowed to go home - like Eligio Miglia, 51, of Crestline, an area hard hit by the Old Fire.

“I’m happy we are safe, I’m satisfied we’ve got food. I’m hopeful we’ll get up there soon,” said Miglia as he pushed his grandmother in a wheelchair through the breakfast line at a San Bernardino shelter. They have been living in a mobile home with four other family members.

Some towns in the San Bernardinos remained off-limits because of concerns about mudslides, falling rocks and trees and damage to Highway 18.

As the threat diminished, authorities planned to send as many as 3,000 firefighters home.

Bob Narus, a spokesman for officials fighting the Old Fire and a nearby blaze, said about 800 firefighters were sent home Saturday after working 16-hour days. He didn’t know how many were to be demobilized Sunday.

Most of the firefighters being released were on loan from city and county fire departments statewide and were needed back home, Narus said. Some engines could be assigned to other fires, he said, but that was unlikely because the other blazes also were winding down.

“You miss your family and you’ve been living in a state where you really don’t know what’s going on,” Narus said. “When you get off work you just want to eat and sleep.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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