LOS ANGELES, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Thousands of Southern Californians returned home to find their houses burned to the ground, or miraculously intact on Monday, after a wind-whipped weekend firestorm swept through bone-dry canyons and hillsides.
"It was really hard when we first got here. It was shocking. We were all crying," Brittney Fowler, 23, told Reuters as she picked through the rubble of her family's large modern house in Yorba Linda, in Orange County.
Hot winds and record temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius) were forecast to ease off on Monday. But several fires burned through Sunday night and thick, choking smoke hung heavily over neighborhoods 25 miles (40 km) away.
Wildfires have scorched more than 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) since Thursday night in foothills north of Los Angeles, in Orange County canyons to the south-east, and in celebrity-heavy Montecito near Santa Barbara, to the north. Mobile homes, apartments and multimillion dollar mansions were among the estimated 1,000 homes destroyed.
Officials began lifting evacuation orders on Sunday for more than half the estimated 50,000 people who fled at the height of the fires but firefighters said it would take days to extinguish all the blazes.
No deaths or major injuries have been reported and the cause of the fires was not known.
Southern California is in a drought after minimal rainfall for two years that has turned the terrain into a tinder box while population growth over the past 20 years has seen once arid brushland on city outskirts turned into housing developments.
Many people returned to devastating scenes of homes reduced to ashes in streets where neighboring houses were unscathed.
Fowler said she grabbed her two dogs, a turtle and a few pictures before fleeing with her family when the roof caught fire. "You could feel the heat and you saw little ember pieces flying by and we just said we've got to go. I kept looking around, thinking I'll miss you house," she said on Sunday.
Like many victims, Fowler vowed to rebuild. That sentiment was echoed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who told journalists on Sunday; "We are going to rebuild, make no mistake about that."
In the foothills north of Los Angeles, where some 500 homes were burned down in a Sylmar mobile home park, firefighters presented a tattered U.S. flag to park manager Jinny Harmon as residents made homeless cried and applauded.
"It represents that we will survive, that we will be coming back," Harmon said.
Arnold Caudill, 69, buried two of his five cats on Sunday in the backyard of his fire-ravaged home in Yorba Linda.
"There's not a whole lot to save. All of our mementos are melted," he told Reuters on his return. "This big wall of flames came right over the house and we just said, 'Holy Shit'. Before you knew it, the flames were in our face."
"This helps the pain," he said, sipping from a bottle of red wine found intact in his refrigerator.
California's fire season, which traditionally ran from June to October, has been a year-round menace as global warming has brought higher winter temperatures and less rainfall.
In October 2007, 30 blazes raged across Southern California for almost a week, forcing evacuation of more than 500,000 people and damaging some 2,000 homes.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)
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