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Fire deaths, damage come into focus as evacuees cope

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Number of injured fire victims jumps to 85, including 61 firefighters
  • NFL game to be held at stadium that housed evacuees, CBS announces
  • Returning evacuee finds most cherished possession
  • Firefighters near San Diego credit progress on humidity, temperatures
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Firefighters on Friday controlled fourteen of nearly two dozen Southern California wildfires, which authorities have directly blamed for seven deaths.

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John Toliver looks through what's left of his fire-ravaged home Thursday in Poway, California.

Five days of wildfires in the southern part of the state have charred 497,963 acres -- 778 square miles -- or about three-quarters of the size of Rhode Island, officials said. Arson is suspected in two of the fires.

In a sign of progress, CBS announced the NFL's San Diego Chargers will play as scheduled Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, where thousands of evacuees have sought shelter this week.

Airborne firefighters dropping water on flames near San Diego concentrated Friday on stopping wildfires south of Highway 76, which runs east from Oceanside in northern San Diego County.

"A lot of good work was done last night because of the rise in the humidity and the cooler temperatures," said firefighter battalion chief John Winder. "We made a lot of progress. We're looking pretty good."

The number of people hurt in the fires increased Friday to 85, including at least 61 firefighters, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

For some evacuees who returned to their destroyed homes, there was hope amid heartbreak. Escondido resident Jim Noyes found what he called his most prized possession: a silver dollar and a letter written by his late mother to his father on their wedding day -- in 1958.

"Take this coin and hold on to it, and you'll never be poor," said the letter, which Noyes found in a fire-proof safe. "I'll always love you, my husband. Hold this silver dollar. Always keep it, and we'll never be completely broke." Video Watch one family's tearful ride home »

Flames destroyed at least 1,641 homes, said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Authorities were allowing many residents to return home, where they often found only ash and debris. Watch victims react to seeing their destroyed neighborhood »

"We see pictures from online and on TV, but it's just, it's much different when you see it up front," said Louela Binlac in front of what remained of her Rancho Bernardo home.

"The most important thing is that our family is still together, everybody is safe, and eventually we will rebuild again," she said. "Those things you can replace. We are just all grateful that everybody is safe."

Friday's weather conditions were forecast to improve across hardest-hit areas, said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which listed 14 of 23 wildfires as 100 percent contained. See where the fires are still burning »

The cost of homes destroyed by the wildfires is likely to top $1 billion in San Diego County alone, an emergency official said. Photo See photos of the fires »

Although forecasters predict no rain during the upcoming days, CNN's Jenny Harrison described a "much better picture" approaching -- including lighter winds and cloud coverage that will reduce temperatures and raise humidity.

As conditions improved, some communities allowed evacuated residents to return, although other communities were not in the clear, with new evacuation orders mandated where the unrelenting flames marched on.

Residents of the city of Ramona were warned Friday not to turn on or drink the municipal water at home or work "because it could cause illness," a statement from the California Department of Health warned. "Use only bottled water."

Authorities said 200 to 300 cars were lined up outside of Ramona Thursday evening, filled with residents waiting to return to their homes. Deputies were in place to direct traffic.

A Camp Pendleton base spokesman Friday announced limited evacuation orders had been lifted on the base, allowing for the return of select Marine regiments.

The number of deaths grew to seven Thursday, after the charred bodies of four people believed to be illegal immigrants were found in a canyon east of San Diego.

Officials labeled seven other deaths as fire-related including three elderly people who died during evacuations, and four others who died after being evacuated.

I-Report

Qualcomm Stadium was set to close to evacuees Friday afternoon, said Mayor Jerry Sanders. Remaining evacuees will be moved to Del Mar Fairgrounds, said emergency authorities.

Residents whose homes were threatened by the Ranch Fire in Angeles National Forest, Martin Fire in San Bernadino County, Roca and Rosa fires in Riverside County and Meadowridge Fire in Los Angeles County were cleared by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to return home late Thursday.

San Diego County residents of Poway, Escondido, Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego and Rancho Bernardo were also permitted to return home. However, mandatory evacuations along Highway 76, outlying areas of Fallbrook and in Julian remained. In addition, Green Valley residents were also ordered to evacuate.

Orange County's top fire official said the 26,000-acre Santiago Fire was deliberately started in two places along a little-traveled road by someone with apparent knowledge of arson. Chief Chip Prather said evidence was found but he would not describe it.

No arrests have been made and no warrants issued, he said.

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The FBI and the ATF are assisting Orange County authorities with the Santiago Fire investigation. The reward for tips leading to an arrest has ballooned to $250,000 and Prather said a hotline is in place -- (800) 540-8282 -- for people to phone in leads.

The state forestry unit considers the Rosa fire in Riverside County an arson case. It burned more than 400 acres before being fully contained. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Kyra Phillips, Allan Chernoff, Keith Oppenheim and Jacqui Jeras contributed to this report.

All About Wildfires

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