Residents return but Southern California fire still has life

Thousands of people have returned to neighborhoods evacuated during Southern California's deadly wildfire but officials said the threat is far from over.

The huge blaze briefly gained renewed life yesterday with a flare-up in the Santa Monica Mountains before water- and fire retardant-dropping aircraft beat it back.

However, except for an apartment building that burned in coastal Malibu, there was little sign of fire activity elsewhere in the vast burn zone west of Los Angeles.

The weeklong blaze in Ventura and Los Angeles counties had blackened an area about the size of Denver and was 40 percent contained. Since last Thursday, the blaze had marched steadily toward the sea, engulfing mobile homes, scenic canyon getaways and celebrity estates.

Firefighters could make more progress if relentless Santa Ana winds start to diminish as predicted today and tomorrow.

Authorities allowed residents back into several communities yesterday, including a section of Malibu. Other areas have been repopulated since the weekend. Tens of thousands of people remained under evacuation orders, down from a high of as many as 250,000.

Officials tempered optimism with caution, saying there were hotspots and pockets of unburned vegetation that could ignite.

Dawn Kamber