RAMONA, Calif. (AP) - Tens of thousands of displaced families began returning to fire-ravaged California communities on Friday, but it will likely be months or even years before they recover the comforts they left behind when they fled giant walls of flames that have destroyed at least 1,800 homes.

In Ramona, a bucolic mountain hamlet perched at the top of a winding road in northern San Diego County, Randy and Aimee Powers returned to find their home intact but without electricity or water.

Fire trucks that had sucked up 300 gallons at a time had drained the town's reservoir.

"We are in extreme water crisis situation. No water use is allowed," was the recorded message from the Ramona Municipal Water District that greeted returning residents who still had phone service. "We must fill the system to supply the fire hydrants first."

It was a reminder that, although substantially less dangerous than they were several days ago, numerous fires were still burning out of control throughout Southern California.

In San Diego County, the area hardest hit, only one of four major fires was more than 50 percent contained. In the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area of San Bernardino County, one of two fires that have destroyed more than 300 homes was 70 percent contained. But the other was only 30 percent contained, as was the Santiago Fire in Orange County that blackened 26,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes near Irvine.

In all, more than a dozen fires had raced across more than 490,000 acres - or 765 square miles - an area half the size of Rhode Island, by Friday. At least three people and possibly seven have been killed by flames. Seven others died of various causes after being evacuated.

Still, many people were eager to get back to their neighborhoods Friday, and shelters throughout the region began shutting down. The largest, Qualcomm Stadium, which had housed 10,000 refugees at the height of the disaster, was being readied for Sunday's NFL football game between the San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans.

"It's better to be at home. We're going to stick it out and do whatever we have to do up here to survive. We'll make it through," said Randy Powers, who joined a half-mile-long car caravan on Ramona's Aqua Lane.

He was headed to Ramona Community Park, where a water distribution center was being manned by the National Guard. He and his wife needed jugs of spring water for themselves and their tropical fish.

"We can't flush the toilets and we've opened up the floodgates and are letting everyone back. I'm not sure if that's a good thing," said Brad Fisher of the Ramona Community Emergency Response Team. But he added that "there's a real pioneer mentality here in Ramona" and most everybody wanted to return home.

But not everyone.

Jeff and Janis Griffin came back for only a few minutes before thick smoke and the primitive conditions drove them to a hotel outside the fire zone.

"Let's face it, if you don't have water and you don't have sanitation, that's when disease comes," said Janis Griffin, 55. "This is a bad situation, it's dangerous, and we're not staying."

Others, like Robert Sanders of Rancho Bernardo, had no homes to return to. The 56-year-old photographer came back to find his house reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble. The fire-resistant box he kept his transparencies in was intact but its contents were melted. He also lost the only photo he had of his father.

"I've lost my history," Sanders said. "All the work I've done for the past 30 years, it's all destroyed."

Nearby, Allen Jost and his wife, Edie, were among the lucky ones. Although 26 of 53 homes in their neighborhood were destroyed, they lost only the spa on their back porch.

Wearing gloves and a respirator mask as he swept soot and ash from his driveway, Jost predicted that hard-hit Rancho Bernardo would eventually bounce back.

"It's going to be a construction zone," said Jost, whose home was still without power and gas. "But the neighbors are already getting together and talking about getting a single source for demolition and design and all that. I think when people rebuild, they'll rebuild in a way that this'll never happen again. We're going to have nice new houses - in a year or two."

Until things return to normal, Renee Miller, seven months pregnant, was making do with one of dozens of portable toilets set up around Ramona. Her children, ages 8, 5 and 3, hadn't had showers in four days, she said, but she was swabbing them with antiseptic hand gel found at hand-washing stations.

"They are filthy little kids today," she said.

As residents returned, firefighters continued to battle dangerous blazes in many areas, including one that crested San Diego County's 5,500-foot Palomar Mountain, site of the world-famous Palomar Observatory.

Crews cleared brush and set backfires Friday to halt the flames' advance, said Fred Daskoski, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The observatory, operated by the California Institute of Technology, was home to the world's largest telescope when it was dedicated in 1948.

The structure did not appear to be in immediate danger, said observatory spokesman Scott Kardel who had been evacuated but remained in contact with staff who stayed behind.

To the southeast, the Witch Fire, which 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.

Flames were about six miles away, and firefighters were concerned that winds coming from the west would accelerate the blaze uphill toward the town, where dozens of homes were destroyed by fire four years ago.

East of San Diego, firefighters also 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," Daskoski said.

One thing acting in firefighters' favor was weather conditions.

The hellish northeast Santa Ana winds that gusted as high as 100 mph earlier in the week, were gone Friday and not expected to return any time soon, said National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Boldt.

Weekend weather was expected to remain calm and warm, Boldt said, with winds of 10 mph to 20 mph kicking up in mountain and canyon areas as early as Monday.

"At that point firefighters will have to be concerned about which way the wind is blowing," Boldt said. "But it's no major storm system by any means, and certainly not Santa Ana winds."

Since the fires began breaking out late Saturday across a huge swath of Southern California, from Ventura County north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border south of San Diego, they have caused more than $1 billion in property damage to San Diego County alone.

The three confirmed fire deaths also occurred in San Diego County, and officials were attempting to determine whether four charred bodies found near the Mexican border on Thursday were also victims of fire.