SAN DIEGO, Oct 24 (Reuters) California firefighters made headway in reining in 18 wildfires today as hot winds abated and San Diego said it hoped to let some of the 500,000 evacuees start returning home.
But despite the progress, nearly 9,000 firefighters were still waging a pitched battle on hillsides and in canyons while the skies over much of the region were choked with thick, acrid smoke, forcing residents to stay indoors or wear masks.
''We should have almost all of our people back in their homes by this evening,'' San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said, referring to evacuees within city limits.
California Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger said 18 fires burned today, threatening 25,000 structures. Nearly 1,500 homes have been destroyed. San Diego bore the brunt of the damage and officials there put losses in excess of 1 billion dollars.
More than half a million people have been forced from their homes in the biggest mass evacuation in modern California history.
Many awaited for official permission to return home without knowing the fate of their property and possessions.
''I know it's happening, but it still feels like a bad dream. I'm waiting to wake up,'' said evacuee Brenda Loveall, 36, who cried after seeing a newspaper photo that showed heavy damage to her own apartment.
Six deaths have been reported, while 40 people suffered injuries, some of them firefighters.
Two big fires merged in San Diego County, scorching more than 200,000 acres, almost half of the total burned area in California. But officials said that for the first time in four days they appeared to be heading away from populated areas.
WIND WARNINGS CANCELED Los Angeles County canceled wind warnings for the first time since hot Santa Ana gusts blew in from the desert over the weekend, fanning brush fires after one of the driest summers on record.
Mountain blazes east of Los Angeles were the worst, but firefighters said calmer wind conditions would make a big difference. Top wind speeds fell to below 50 mph (80 kph) after gale force gusts hit 80 mph.
President George W Bush today declared a ''major disaster'' in seven Southern California counties, triggering extra federal help. He will travel to the region tomorrow to get a close-up look at the devastation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had 1,000 people on the ground in San Diego, Sanders said.
FEMA and Bush were both criticized for being slow to respond when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region in 2005.
NASA launched an unmanned Predator B aircraft to carry out advanced imaging of the wildfire areas by remote control.
At San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, where the National Football League's San Diego Chargers play, thousands of evacuees spent a second night. Most praised the conditions there, from the cleanliness to abundant food and water and even yoga, acupuncture and massage.
In Rancho Bernardo, one of the worst-hit San Diego County towns, embers smoldered in burned houses and firefighters extinguished hot spots before giving the all-clear.
''I have a place to go home to. I know because my answering machine is still working, which means it's not melted,'' said Rancho Bernardo resident Helle Powell, 61.
San Diego County officials said that even when the fires were out they would face a major cleanup and huge costs.
Based on initial estimates, just the homes damaged will be over 1 billion dollars,'' Ron Lane, San Diego County emergency services director, told a news conference.
San Diego told residents to conserve water and electricity, as the fires sliced power supply to 60 per cent of normal and threatened to cut off the area from the state's power grid.
Reuters AK VP0345