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More voracious than fleeing residents ever imagined, the arsonist's fire that rampaged through 76 square miles of rugged canyonland twisted metal like putty, charred wood to dust and gnawed 37 houses nearly to the bone.

"We were going to bring bags to pick up assorted things. I didn't realize it was this bad," Hugh Rodman said Wednesday, staring at the heap of ash that had been his home. "I loved it and it was the perfect place for me to live."Neighbor Steve Lund sifted through smoldering cinders and found a saber that was a family keepsake, but heat had rendered the most familiar objects nearly unrecognizable - a blackened washer and dryer, the smoldering hulk of a car. Chimneys stood like tombstones. Miles of surrounding hillside was haze-covered, blackened ruin.

At Burc Sinclaire's place, a fireplace and chimney stood as lone sentry.

"I had a good library and I had Louis L'Amour's complete, everything the guy made, and I lost the whole damn thing," he said. "It was unbelievable how high the flames got. They got up as high as 60 or 70 feet."

Flames continued to lick at steep canyons full of century-old brush thickets, but authorities said the immediate danger to houses and ranches had passed in San Luis Obispo County, about 135 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Firefighters had the blaze 85 percent surrounded and expected full containment by Monday, said Glenda Powell, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.

"The weather is favorable this morning for firefighting. There's fog, the temperatures have dropped and the humidity is way up," said Tom Wright, a spokesman for the forestry department.

Gov. Pete Wilson told homeowners the state was offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the arsonist who started the blaze Sunday.

Farther north, near the Nevada border, erratic winds swept an 8,500-acre fire up to a 150-house subdivision in Loyalton, forcing residents to flee.

Nationwide, nearly 20,000 firefighters are battling 28 major fires in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.