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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

One thing that strikes people about the California fires is the randomness of the destruction. One house may be fine, then the house next door may burn to the ground. Seventeen hundred homes have been destroyed and many people who fled their homes can only wait to see if they are among the lucky ones. Fires are still burning in parts of San Diego but it is now possible to get a glimpse of some affected neighborhoods.

And NPR's Scott Horsley had a look.

SCOTT HORSLEY: You can still make out the Happy Halloween banner hanging from the balcony of a house on Aguamiel Road in northern San Diego. But most of the word Happy has been blown away by the same Santa Ana winds that set fire to many of the other houses on the block. This area was one of the hardest hit within the city but even here, the damage is uneven. One smoking wall is all that's left of one house. The house next door is hardly touched, even the rose petals are barely singed.

Authorities aren't letting residents back into this neighborhood except for quick visits with a police escort. After a nervous night in a hotel, Todd and Colleen Wong were thrilled to find their house still standing.

Ms. COLLEEN WONG (Resident): Of courseā€¦

Mr. TODD WONG (Resident): Oh, we are so overjoyed, man.

Ms. WONG: We didn't know until 10 minutes ago that our house is here.

HORSLEY: The Wongs retrieved a couple of duffle bags full of belongings then headed back to the hotel to wait for an all-clear. Todd Wong said someone must have been looking out for them.

Mr. WONG: You know, looking at the devastation around here, we were real lucky. You know, we rolled out of here without anything at 5 o'clock in the morning, we had four minutes. By the time we left the house from when we woke up, we could see the huge red fire in the back. It was crazy.

(Soundbite of machine)

Mr. DANIEL BIAS (Utility worker): All right. Cut it.

HORSLEY: Down the street, utility worker Daniel Bias is marking the location of underground gas lines. Authorities want to make sure any gas leaks are repaired before residents are allowed to return for good.

In the meantime, City Councilor Brian Maienschein has been walking the neighborhood, compiling a grim list of addresses where homes are no longer standing.

Mr. BRIAN MAIENSCHEIN (City Councilor, San Diego): Well, as you can see, why would you say there's - probably about close to a hundred homes on here. So it's, you know, it's very, very significant.

HORSLEY: Mainschein has been through this before. Four years ago this week, many of the homes in his district were destroyed when another firestorm swept through San Diego. At the time, there were complaints that city and county governments weren't cooperating and that residents received little warning about the deadly blaze.

This time around, authorities used an automated telephone system to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people, which may have saved lives. Mainschein says the local governments have also presented a more united front.

Mr. MAIENSCHEIN: From what I have witnessed and the reports that I have heard, the city and the county have worked very well together. And so I think that's been a real plus.

HORSLEY: The state and federal governments are also eager to show they're doing their part. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff paid a high-profile visit to evacuees at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium yesterday. He promised a full court press by the federal government both in confronting the immediate fire threat and rebuilding afterwards.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): I know there's a lot of anxiety on the part of people about what they're going to face when they go home. I know there's a request for a disaster declaration in the works and I anticipate this. As soon as that gets up there and gets approved, we will be working very closely with you to restore the communities that have been hurt by these terrible fires.

HORSLEY: Among other things, a disaster declaration allows the federal government to provide individual assistance, emergency loans and help from the Army Corps of Engineers.

David Paulison, a one-time firefighter who now heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says the government has come a long way since the last time thousands of Americans are forced to take shelter in a football stadium.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency): Somebody asked me earlier what was the difference between what happened in Katrina and what's happening here today. What we learned after Hurricane Katrina, that we have to work together, that we have to be organized.

HORSLEY: Local businesses and individuals have also stepped in, donating truckloads of food, water, diapers and other supplies. So far, there's been a little second guessing of the government's response. But even as more and more firefighter pour into California, hard choices have to be made.

One state fire chief said with so many fires burning across Southern California, there are more homes in the line of danger than there are fire engines to defend them.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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