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San Diego stadium, a fire shelter, back to being football venue, but blazes still a threat

SAN DIEGO — Qualcomm Stadium began to transform from emergency shelter back to football venue Friday as crews gained ground on Southern California's wildfires, though flare-ups underscored the stubborn threat from blazes that have blackened hundreds of square miles.

The last of more than 10,000 displaced residents were to leave the stadium Friday, four days after it opened as a shelter, and the NFL said it had decided against relocating Sunday's game between the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Texans.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said the league informed him it intended to play the game as scheduled. The city would be able to provide enough public safety personnel to handle the game without impeding wildfire recovery efforts, Sanders said in a news release.

Though several blazes still burned Friday across San Diego County, the region hardest hit by the firestorms that began last weekend, thousands of evacuees have been trickling back to neighborhoods stripped bare.

To the southeast, a fire that already has destroyed more than 1,000 homes was churning its way toward Julian. The town of 3,000, nestled in the rolling hills of a popular apple-growing region, was under mandatory evacuation.

East of San Diego, firefighters were trying to keep flames from Lake Morena, which is surrounded by hundreds of homes.

"Until you get a control line around each and every individual fire, there's a potential of them blowing out anywhere," said Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Among the structures threatened Friday was the Palomar Observatory. Crews were clearing brush and lighting back burns around the landmark building, Daskoski said.

The observatory, home to the world's largest telescope when it was dedicated in 1948, did not appear to be in immediate danger, said observatory spokesman Scott Kardel, who had been evacuated but was in contact with staff who remained.

In all, fires in seven Southern California counties have raced across 494,355 acres — about 772 square miles. They were fanned early in the week by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County. The property damage there alone surpassed $1 billion.

Officials have opened assistance centers where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and mental health counseling.

"The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that," San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. "The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people."

The state has come under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires' crucial first hours. An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes were grounded by government rules and bureaucracy as flames spread.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry "fire spotters" who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made flying too dangerous.

Additionally, the National Guard's C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-needed retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.

"When you look at what's happened, it's disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that's put tens of thousands of people in danger," Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.

The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home. Seven people died of other causes connected to the evacuations.

Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.

Five people have been arrested for arson since wildfires broke out across Southern California this week, but none has been linked to any of the major blazes.

Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Martha Mendoza in Running Springs, Scott Lindlaw in Julian, Gillian Flaccus in Jamul and Thomas Watkins, Jacob Adelman, Chelsea J. Carter, Jeremiah Marquez and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.