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Wildfire survivors give thanks at church services

Chelsea J. Carter

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Survivors of Southern California firestorms that destroyed more than 2,000 homes found reasons Sunday to be thankful even as the damage toll mounted and firefighters worked to contain blazes.

Fire officials were keeping an eye on warm, dry weather that moved in behind a moist, tropical system that allowed fire crews to make gains Saturday. Winds up to 15 mph were expected, but weren’t considered a problem.

“This is fire conditions that we can actively fight, unlike the Santa Ana winds,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

But there was a possibility of strong offshore winds in another seven days, he said.

It was the onset of the seasonal Santa Anas — fierce, dry winds blowing from the desert and out to sea — that spread fires across more than 500,000 acres of Southern California during the week, chasing a half-million people from communities as homes burned.

Despite the destruction, so many who lost so much still gave thanks at church services in some of the hardest-hit communities.

At the Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church, where 60 families lost their homes, they gave thanks for the big things: for lives saved, for families, for friendships. They also gave thanks for small things: a hug, a shoulder to cry on.

Nancy Hylbert gave thanks for a wrought iron ice cream table and chairs that survived outside, and a terra cotta cat statue from her garden.

“They are the only links with my past, ” she said. “I feel a little bit like an amnesiac with no link to my past.”

Barbara Warden escaped her home with only three boxes of photographs and her grandfather’s cuckoo clock.

“We’re sitting in church and I’m saying to myself, our lives will never be the same,” she said.

And yet Warden said she, too, was thankful. Nobody in her community or family was hurt or injured.

A day earlier, she sifted through the ashes of her home and found a sundial given to her by her husband. It was engraved with the message: “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be.”

“That says it all, doesn’t it?” she said. “We have a lot to be thankful for. We have each other.”

At Crestline, in the Lake Arrowhead region of the fire-ravaged San Bernardino Mountains, about 25 members of the Community Presbyterian Church had to piece together their own worship service because their interim pastor couldn’t get a resident’s card, the crucial piece of identification needed to drive past roadblocks.

A sign outside the church said, “Life is Fragile, Handle with Prayer.”

Members hugged and rejoiced over the congregation’s fortune: The fire had spared all local members’ homes, a woman had given birth to a healthy baby boy while evacuated, and power had stayed on for those who disobeyed the order to leave town.

“Praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we have lucked out much more than we deserve,” said Bill Lange, a scientist who led the service. “Dear Lord, thank you for sparing us again and thank you for helping all the people who needed the help.”

As the organist started playing “Here I Am, Lord,” several women wiped tears from under their glasses.

Symbolizing the region’s improving outlook, San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium was surrounded by thousands of people Sunday – but this time they were National Football League fans, not fire evacuees.

The San Diego Chargers’ game against the Houston Texans brought out crowds of tailgaters following a week in which it had seemed the contest would have to be moved somewhere else.

Heidi Schutte was among volunteers soliciting the crowd for donations to aid fire victims. Her bucket was filled with $5 and $10 bills.

“People have been very generous. There’s no change in here — all bills,” she said.

Monika and Cody Dayton partied with 18-month-old son Aidan and friends at table full of chips and dips and a small grill. The Daytons hadn’t been affected by the fires, but had taken in evacuees, and Monika Dayton said she had been among the many people who brought donated goods to the stadium while it was serving as a shelter.

Before the game, the crowd gave an ovation to a group of firefighters, law enforcement officers and National Guard members. Four firefighters led the Chargers onto the field, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, surrounded by fire and police chiefs and team captains, presided over the coin toss.

As of Sunday, the state Office of Emergency Services tallied 2,767 structures destroyed. OES spokeswoman Kim Oliver said the number included 2,013 homes.

With more than a dozen fires fully surrounded, firefighters were pushing to complete lines around seven others. Containment of those blazes ranged from 50 percent to 97 percent.

“All the manpower is concentrated on the seven fires so they are going to put those fires out and get them under control very quickly,” Schwarzenegger said during a visit to a victims’ assistance center in El Cajon.

He quizzed workers from numerous agencies on whether they had been able to help every victim that had come by.

“Follow-through is very important,” he told workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency booth.

Seven deaths have been directly attributed to the fires, including those of four suspected illegal immigrants, whose burned bodies were found near the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday.

Eleven Mexicans were being treated at a San Diego hospital for burns suffered in the wildfires after crossing the border illegally, the Mexican government confirmed Saturday. Four were in critical condition.

— Associated Press writers Garance Burke in Crestline, Allison Hoffman and Bernie Wilson in San Diego, Aaron C. Davis in El Cajon and Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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