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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's an update on the other major story we're following this morning: the fires in California.

Evacuation orders have been lifted in many parts of San Diego, but hundreds of thousands of residents have no homes to return to. Wildfires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and they continue to burn in many backcountry areas. At the same time, officials have begun turning attention to rebuilding. They're also considering how to prepare for the next big firestorm.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Even before he drove down the narrow winding road that leads to his property in the San Diego suburb of Poway, Paul Kassel feared the worst. He and his family had fled their home at 3 a.m. on Monday. They later heard the wildfire swept right through their neighborhood.

Mr. PAUL KASSEL (Resident): My brother, who lost his home in the Cedar Fire four years ago, told me - call your house. If the phone rings, it's still there. If you get a busy signal, it's gone. And then I called, I got a busy signal.

HORSLEY: Even without warning, Kassel says, it was a shock to see the black and rubble of what used to be his home. A rod iron chair is still recognizable but Castle can't tell if it's where the kitchen was or maybe the game room. Two hula-hoops and a garden hose are the only things he managed to salvage.

Mr. KASSEL: There's nothing left. I mean, this is a 5500-square-foot home that is all the way down to the ground.

HORSLEY: Still, Kassel, his wife Cynthia, and their two children are safe. For the moment, they are living in a motor home with a few possessions they managed to bring with them.

Ms. CYNTHIA KASSEL (Resident): We got a few pictures but, you know, you never leave your house thinking that you're not coming back so, you know. We just -never thought that we won't be coming back.

HORSLEY: The wildfire has destroyed more than 80 homes in Poway and so far have claimed more than a thousand throughout San Diego County. Yesterday, residents were allowed to return to some of the badly burned areas.

Bob Myers, who lives a short distance away from the Kassels, was one of the lucky ones.

Mr. BOB MYERS (Resident): The house is okay. It's got soot and smells like smoke. And it burned, I mean, literally, around it. It blew these trees down; these tall eucalyptus. They just broke. They didn't burn down, they were just blown down. The wind must come through here at a hundred miles an hour.

HORSLEY: Myers looks ruefully around at the fire trucks now putting out hot spots in his neighborhoods. They were around to protect the area this week the way they have been for smaller fires in the past.

Mr. MYERS: Another fire that we had here, there was a truck at every single house. This time I don't think they were here at all. They just didn't have the resources and the fire was just flying. There's no way they could get in front of it. So what burned this time is what the fire wanted.

HORSLEY: Fire engines, air planes and ground crews were all stretched thin this week, as wildfires raged throughout Southern California. A giant firefighting sea plane that was supposed to arrive from Canada yesterday was temporarily held up by Customs.

Still, San Diego's Regional Fire Coordinator Kevin Crawford says more help is on the way.

Mr. KEVIN CRAWFORD (President, San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association): We have received a number of assets from outside of Southern California. They're starting to trickle down into San Diego County from the northern regions of California. That's a good thing. It will provide an opportunity for our personnel to get some needed rest.

HORSLEY: San Diego has been faulted in the past for not investing enough in its own firefighting resources, even after the 2003 Cedar Fire destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts concedes there's a long way to go. But after briefing reporters inside the county's emergency operations center, he said the region is making progress.

Mr. RON ROBERTS (Chairman, San Diego Board of Supervisors): The county of San Diego now has two helicopters. The city has a helicopter. None of these assets were available to us but we have, with our own money, have put two in the air. I don't think anybody would begin to say that this is enough.

HORSLEY: Los Angeles County, for example, has about five times as many firefighting helicopters, even though it covers a smaller area than San Diego. The shortage of local resources leaves San Diego more dependent on outside help. And Roberts says this week every county in Southern California was clamoring for more firefighting tools.

Mr. ROBERTS: Do we want more? You betcha, absolutely, no question about it. To the extent that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, I'll continue to be the squeaky wheel.

HORSLEY: Even with fires still burning in San Diego, authorities are opening up offices to help victims with the rebuilding process.

Paul Kassel says his brother has nearly finished rebuilding after the Cedar Fire. It only took four years.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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