SAN DIEGO — A merciful easing of the winds fueling Southern California's sprawling wildfires finally gave fire crews a chance to fight back against some blazes Wednesday, and weary residents could take solace in an overriding sign of hope: Just one person has died from the flames.
That contrasts to 22 dead from a fire of similar magnitude in 2003. And while the final toll has yet to be tallied from this week's fires, officials were crediting an automated, reverse 911 calling system that prompted the orderly evacuation of more than half a million people _ 10 times the number evacuated four years ago.
"They are more determined that people leave," said Steve Levstik, who got his call 15 minutes before flames swept through his Rancho Bernardo neighborhood.
"It was very intense. On the call, it was like, 'This area, go! This area, go!' In 2003 there was less guidance. It was like, 'Just pay attention to the news and if it looks bad, leave.'"
On Wednesday, winds dropped to 21 to 36 mph, considerably less than the fierce gusts of up to 100 mph that whipped fire zones earlier in the week.
The improving weather allowed for a greater aerial assault on the flames and helped firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes. Helicopters and air tankers dropped 30 to 35 loads of water on two fires that have burned hundreds of homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Lake Arrowhead.
"They're taking it down considerably," said Dennis Bouslaugh of the U.S. Forest Service.
Firefighters had fully contained the three major fires in Los Angeles County by nightfall, and largely contained many of the fires north of San Diego.
Despite the progress, none of the six major blazes in San Diego County was more than 15 percent contained, and those fires threatened more than 8,500 houses. The top priority was a fire in San Bernardino County that threatened 6,000 homes and continued to rage out of control.
So far, this week's fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes and burned 682 square miles across five counties, from Ventura in the north all the way into Mexico. The state Office of Emergency Services said 28,000 homes were still threatened.
Property damage has reached at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California. The president was scheduled to visit the region Thursday.
The death toll from the most recent blazes may rise as fires continue to burn and authorities return to neighborhoods where homes turned to piles of ash, but displaced homeowners and authorities were relieved that early reports were so low.
The San Diego County medical examiner officially listed six deaths connected to the blazes, but he included five who died during the evacuation who were not directly killed by the fire. In 2003, all but a handful of the 22 dead succumbed to the flames.
Terry Dooley, who was ordered out of his home with his wife and three sons Monday, said authorities learned important lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 California fires that wiped out 3,640 homes and blackened 750,000 acres during a two-week period.
"They learned how to get things done more quickly," Dooley said as he waited at a roadblock Wednesday to return home to San Diego's upscale, densely populated Rancho Bernardo area.
In addition to the reverse-911 system, authorities shut down schools, halted mail delivery and urged people to stay home and off the roads if they were not in danger.
Another factor separating these fire from other disasters has been wealth. Unlike many of the poor neighborhoods flooded by Hurricane Katrina, the hardest-hit areas in California were filled with upscale homes, with easy access to wide streets. Less wealthy areas _ including rural enclaves and horse farms that stretch through the mountains east of San Diego _ benefited from easy road access and small crowds.
On Wednesday, about two dozen people gathered at a police barricade in Rancho Bernardo, which was one of the hardest-hit areas, hoping to retrieve medications and belongings _ or simply to see if their homes were intact.
What awaited many was an apocalyptic scene: entire streets leveled, cars reduced to charred hulks of metal, homes with only chimneys left standing. House after house, 29 on one street alone, were reduced to piles of blackened concrete, twisted metal and white ash.
At one point, police officers lifted a barricade into the neighborhood only to turn residents away several hundred yards down the road at a second barricade. Some of the homeowners cursed at the officers.
"You let us in just to send us back out," one angry man yelled from his car.
Dooley knew his home was OK because his home answering machine still worked.
Six of San Diego County's 42 evacuation centers were full Wednesday but there was plenty of space at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL Chargers, where 10,000 people sought refuge. People rested on cots that lined covered walkways circling the bleachers and quietly watched television as National Guard troops watched. There were no bathroom lines.
Some displaced homeowners complained that the evacuations went too far.
Ron Morris, 68, saw smoke but no flames when he was ordered to leave a motor home park in Ramona, northeast of San Diego, Sunday night. He drove his recreational vehicle to Qualcomm Stadium's parking lot.
"It's good that everyone got out, but they did it too early in my opinion." he said.
Authorities made no apologies.
"One happy consequence" of the 2003 fires is that people remember that fire can be very unpredictable, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.
"All but the most unlucky people can see the fire coming," he said. "There's no reason you should have loss of life, certainly for civilians."
The causes of many fires remained under investigation. A 30-square-mile Orange County fire that destroyed nine homes was believed to be arson because authorities found three different ignition points within a short distance.
In San Bernardino County, a motorcyclist who authorities say set a small fire in a rural foothill area of the San Bernardino Mountains has been booked for investigation of arson, but investigators said they didn't know whether he was connected to any of the larger fires.
In the city of San Bernardino, police said they shot and killed a man who fled Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire. After a chase, the man, whose name was not released, backed his car into a police cruiser and an officer opened fire, police said.
The only confirmed death from the flames was Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego. He was ordered to evacuate, but he didn't leave and authorities left him to take care of other evacuations.
Al Guerin, a San Diego County assistant sheriff, estimated only 100 to 200 people ignored evacuation orders. That included 20 people in the rural community of Jamul, near the Mexican border. Firefighters returned to save them.
Homeowners who stayed behind knew firefighters were overwhelmed and figured their lives were safe, Guerin said.
"They say, 'Yeah, OK,' and then they call you later and say 'Help! Help! Help!'" he said.
Despite road blocks in the San Bernardino mountains, east of Los Angeles, some stayed behind.
"They don't want to lose their stuff," said Running Springs resident Don Rice. "And they get overconfident. We've all made it through a lot of fires."
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus, Allison Hoffman and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego, and Jeremiah Marquez in Los Angeles, and AP National Writer Martha Mendoza in Running Springs, Calif., contributed to this report.