Investigators look for arson in wildfire outbreak

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By Julie Watson and Elliot Spagat

Investigators look for arson in wildfire outbreak
SAN CLEMENTE, CA - MAY 16: People on Trestles beach watch Erickson air crane firefighting helicopters suck water from a lagoon to fight the Talega Fire on nearby Camp Pendleton as a surfer arrives to Tressles beach on May 16, 2014 near San Clemente, California. The Talega Fire, which began this morning, is one of three large wildfires on Camp Pendleton that have scorched more than 22,000 acres. Firefighters have been battling 11 wildfires in San Diego County this week, including the fires on the Marine base. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Smoke plumes rise behind the Marine Corps Camp Pendleton entrance Friday, May 16, 2014, in Oceanside, Calif. San Diego County officials said Friday five wildfires have been 100 percent contained. Still, crews were focusing efforts on two large fires — one in the city of San Marcos and two blazes at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Marines move military vehicles near the entrance to Marine Corps Camp Pendleton in front of smoke plumes from the Las Pulgas wildfire burning on base Friday, May 16, 2014, in Oceanside, Calif. San Diego County officials said Friday five wildfires have been 100 percent contained. Still, crews were focusing efforts on two large fires — one in the city of San Marcos and two blazes at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Cars leave the Marine Corps Camp Pendleton base during a partial evacuation due to wildfires Friday, May 16, 2014, in Oceanside, Calif. San Diego County officials said Friday five wildfires have been 100 percent contained. Still, crews were focusing efforts on two large fires — one in the city of San Marcos and two blazes at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
People look over a canyon ravaged by wildfire Friday, May 16, 2014, in Carlsbad, Calif. Some evacuation orders were lifted early Friday in an area near the fiercest of several wildfires in San Diego County, as crews building containment lines around the blazes hoped cooler temperatures will help them make further progress. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Chase and Brittany Boslet take pictures of smoke from the Las Pulgas fire burning on the Marine Corps Camp Pendleton base Friday, May 16, 2014, from a highway rest area near Oceanside, Calif. San Diego County officials said Friday five wildfires have been 100 percent contained. Still, crews were focusing efforts on two large fires — one in the city of San Marcos and two blazes at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Houses sit untouched above a canyon ravaged by wildfire Friday, May 16, 2014, in Carlsbad, Calif. Some evacuation orders were lifted early Friday in an area near the fiercest of several wildfires in San Diego County, as crews building containment lines around the blazes hoped cooler temperatures will help them make further progress. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Marines move military vehicles near the entrance to Marine Corps Camp Pendleton in front of smoke plumes from the Las Pulgas wildfire burning on base Friday, May 16, 2014, in Oceanside, Calif. San Diego County officials said Friday five wildfires have been 100 percent contained. Still, crews were focusing efforts on two large fires — one in the city of San Marcos and two blazes at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A house burns near an eagle sculpture at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A house burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: Flames spread at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A firefighter pulls a hose in position while battling the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: Smoke rises as the southeast flank of the Cocos fire bears down on houses near Del Dios Highway on May 15, 2014 near San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A house burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: Ranch equipment burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A firefighter pulls a hose into position to battle the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A ranch smolders at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Fire engulfs a structure during a wildfire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Escondido, Calif. One of the nine fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, trigging thousands of new evacuation orders. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
A fire climbs a hillside toward homes Thursday, May 15, 2014, in San Marcos, Calif. The San Diego County sheriff says nearly 13,000 new evacuation notices have been issued due to a wildfire. Sheriff Bill Gore said the notifications are due to a Thursday afternoon flare-up and erratic winds around the Southern California city of San Marcos. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
A helicopter drops retardants while battling the Cocos fire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in San Marcos, Calif. The San Diego County sheriff says nearly 13,000 new evacuation notices have been issued due to a wildfire. Sheriff Bill Gore said the notifications are due to a Thursday afternoon flare-up and erratic winds around the Southern California city of San Marcos. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
A mountain top home burns in the Cocos fire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in San Marcos, Calif. One of the nine fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, trigging thousands of new evacuation orders. (AP Photo)
The skeleton shell of a home is engulfed in flames Thursday, May 15, 2014, in San Marcos, Calif. One of the nine fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, trigging thousands of new evacuation orders. (AP Photo)
A brush fire roars up a hillside filling the air with smoke and embers Thursday, May 15, 2014, in San Marcos, Calif. Gusty winds failed to return Thursday morning in San Diego County wildfire areas and authorities said it was a window of opportunity to make further gains against flames that burned homes and drove tens of thousands from their homes. (AP Photo)
Firefighters take a break on a hillside after hours of work Thursday, May 15, 2014, in San Marcos, Calif. Gusty winds failed to return Thursday morning in San Diego County wildfire areas and authorities said it was a window of opportunity to make further gains against flames that burned homes and drove tens of thousands from their homes. (AP Photo)
A structure burns during a wildfire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Escondido, Calif. One of the nine fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, trigging thousands of new evacuation orders. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
A firefighter moves past a burning structure during a wildfire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Escondido, Calif. One of the nine fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, trigging thousands of new evacuation orders. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
A Riverside firefighter covers the face of another firefighter as they work a wildfire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Escondido, Calif. One of the nine fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, trigging thousands of new evacuation orders.(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
A lone tree stands in the path of approaching flames as wild fire burns through a canyon Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in San Diego. Wildfires destroyed a home and forced the evacuation of several others Tuesday in California as a high-pressure system brought unseasonable heat and gusty winds to a parched state that should be in the middle of its rainy season. (AP Photo)
Flames grow as a wild fire burns out-of-control in the north county area of San Diego Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in San Diego. Wildfires destroyed a home and forced the evacuation of several others Tuesday in California as a high-pressure system brought unseasonable heat and gusty winds to a parched state that should be in the middle of its rainy season. (AP Photo)
Firefighters watch from a ridge as a helicopter drops retardant on a out-of- control wild fire Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in San Diego. (AP Photo)
SAN CLEMENTE, CA - MAY 16: A surfer at Trestles beach looks back at an Erickson air crane firefighting helicopter sucking water from a lagoon to fight the Talega Fire on nearby Camp Pendleton on May 16, 2014 near San Clemente, California. The Talega Fire, which began this morning, is one of three large wildfires on Camp Pendleton that have scorched more than 22,000 acres. Firefighters have been battling 11 wildfires in San Diego County this week, including the fires on the Marine base. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN CLEMENTE, CA - MAY 16: A CH 53 Super Stallion Marine helicopter carries a bucket of water scooped from the ocean to fight the Talega Fire on nearby Camp Pendleton on May 16, 2014 near San Clemente, California. The Talega Fire, which began this morning, is one of three large wildfires on Camp Pendleton that have scorched more than 22,000 acres. Firefighters have been battling 11 wildfires in San Diego County this week, including the fires on the Marine base. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A house burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: The grill of a pickup truck is left melted by the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A firefighter hoses flames at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: Ranch equipment burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A house burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
A helicopter attacks a wild fire burning Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in San Diego. Wildfires destroyed a home and forced the evacuation of several others Tuesday in California as a high-pressure system brought unseasonable heat and gusty winds to a parched state that should be in the middle of its rainy season. (AP Photo)
A helicopter flies over burning vegetation as it nears homes Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in Carlsbad, Calif. More wildfires broke out Wednesday in San Diego County — threatening homes in Carlsbad and forcing the evacuations of military housing and an elementary school at Camp Pendleton — as Southern California is in the grip of a heat wave. (AP Photo)
A helicopter drops water on the grounds surrounding one of the luxury homes of the Fairbanks Ranch area where a wild fire threaten homes Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in San Diego. Wildfires pushed by gusty winds chewed through canyons parched by California’s drought, prompting evacuation orders for more than 20,000 homes on the outskirts of San Diego and another 1,200 homes and businesses in Santa Barbara County 250 miles to the north. (AP Photo)
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SAN DIEGO (AP) - A 57-year-old man was charged with arson Friday in one of at least 10 wildfires that erupted in Southern California this week, and investigators were working to determine whether other blazes in the unusually early and intense outbreak were ignited by something as ordinary as sparks from cars or something more sinister.

State fire officials said the first blaze that erupted between Tuesday and Thursday was caused by a spark from malfunctioning construction equipment. But it could take months to get to the bottom of the most damaging fires.

Alberto Serrato pleaded not guilty to arson in connection with one of the smaller fires - a 105-acre fire in suburban Oceanside that started Wednesday and is fully contained. Bail was set at $250,000.

Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney's office, said witnesses saw Serrato adding dead brush onto smoldering bushes, which flamed up. He has not been connected to any other fire, Sierra said.

Oceanside police Lt. Sean Marshand said Serrato is believed to have added fuel to the fire but not to have started it.

"Unfortunately we don't have the guy that we really want," he said.

Serrato was booked into jail Wednesday, according to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department website, but his arrest wasn't announced until Friday. Sierra didn't know if he had an attorney.

All together, the wildfires have raced through an estimated 20,000 acres about 30 miles north of San Diego, causing more than $20 million in damage. One burned body was found in an encampment of homeless people. At least eight houses and an 18-unit condominium complex were destroyed, and tens of thousands of people were warned to leave their homes.

Eight of the blazes popped up between late morning and sundown on Wednesday, raising suspicions that some had been set.

The region has become a tinder box in recent days because of conditions not normally seen until late summer - extremely dry weather, 50 mph Santa Ana winds and temperatures in the 90s. On Friday, though, cooler weather aided the 2,600 firefighters, and thousands of people began returning home.

In one of the hardest-hit cities, Carlsbad, investigators finished examining the burn site across the street from a park and focused on interviewing people who called a hotline that was set up to report any suspicious activity.

"Do people have suspicions? Yes," said police Capt. Neil Gallucci, noting there has been no lightning that could explain the blazes. "But can we confirm them? The answer is no."

Police in the city of Escondido arrested two people, ages 17 and 19, for investigation of arson in connection with two small fires that were extinguished within minutes. But they found no evidence linking the suspects to the 10 bigger wildfires.

The list of possible causes is long.

"Our investigation might be over quickly for some of these fires - say, if we find a piece of metal nearby from a catalytic converter that backfired," the sheriff said. "But others might not be so easy to determine. We'll be talking to people in the areas to see if they saw anything to see if arson might have had a role."

Investigators will visit each burn site and go down a list, marking what they know and don't know.

Is it near a road? That raises the possibility that the flames were ignited by a hot tailpipe, sparks from a catalytic converter or a discarded cigarette from a motorist. Is there a railroad nearby? Are there any power lines?

Investigators will also study the ground for footprints or tire tracks and analyze the burn pattern.

Two of the blazes broke out at military bases, where training exercises with gunfire have been known to spark flames.

A 2003 wildfire in Southern California that killed 15 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and blackened 300,000 acres in October and November was caused by a lost hunter who set a signal fire. Sparks from power lines were blamed for wildfires in the San Diego area in 2007 that left five people dead and burned down about 1,500 homes.

This time, the hardest-hit areas were in the cities of San Marcos, where a college campus shut down and canceled graduation ceremonies, and Carlsbad, where the Legoland amusement park was forced to close.

A dozen wildfires popping up in a single day is not unheard of in the drought-stricken state, but it's a phenomenon usually seen during the dog days of summer.

"What makes the San Diego area fires so unique is that we had tinder-dry conditions and Santa Ana winds in the month of May, and that's unprecedented," state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

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