Host of fires clear San Diego-area neighborhoods
By Elliot Spagat and Julie Watson
May. 15, 2014 5:34 AM EDT
SAN MARCOS, Calif. (AP) - Tuzo Jerger was one of thousands told to evacuate as a wildfire ripped across Carlsbad, a suburb north of San Diego. The 66-year-old real estate broker packed files, a surfboard, golf clubs, clothes and photos and sought solace at a friend's hilltop house in nearby San Marcos, only to see another fierce wildfire break out there and force thousands from their homes.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, it's going to come this way,'" Jerger said at a San Marcos restaurant where he found relief in a slice of pizza.
Such was the state of San Diego County, where one wildfire after another broke out Wednesday, driving tens of thousands from homes, shutting down schools and amusement parks and destroying at least eight houses and a condominium complex.
Nine fires in all were burning an area of more than 14 square miles as another day of sky-high temperatures and dry winds were expected Thursday, county officials said.
The biggest concern was in San Marcos, where the new blaze broke out in the late afternoon, some 21,000 evacuation notices were sent to residents and a California State University campus with nearly 10,000 students in the middle of final exams was shut down at least through Thursday. At least five structures there were destroyed, authorities said, but it wasn't immediately clear how many were homes.
Firefighters contended with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and gusty winds as they tried to contain flames fueled by brush and trees left brittle by drought.
The most destructive of the fires so far was in the coastal city of Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego and home to Legoland. The park was closed because of a power outage caused by the fire.
The city's schools also were closed, as most of the county's would be on Thursday including San Diego Unified, and officials expected they wouldn't reopen until next week.
Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall said the blaze consumed an eight-unit condominium complex, as well as damaged eight homes and two businesses.
By late Wednesday firefighters had the blaze 10 percent contained and some of the thousands of residents were told they could return.
About 200 residents of San Marcos gathered at an evacuation center in a high school in San Marcos, many from a mobile home park for senior citizens.
Alma Whisenhut, 80, packed clothing and papers for about 20 minutes after police told her and her husband to leave the mobile home park. The couple saw fast-moving flames two ridges away as they left.
"It was scary because there was so much smoke," she said.
Other areas in the county also flared up, though most calmed quickly, including two fires in the far north of the county near Camp Pendleton that together burned nearly 7,000 acres and prompted evacuations that lasted just a few hours.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Diego County, which would free up special resources and funding for the firefight, and state fire officials were creating a central command center for the blazes.
Drought conditions have made fire danger extremely high throughout much of California. Officials have encouraged residents in fire-prone areas to prepare evacuation plans and clear brush from near their homes.
The city's fire chief said the blazes were unprecedented in his 27-year firefighting career because they are so early in the year.
"This is May, this is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October," Chief Michael Davis said. "I haven't seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May."
Police and fire agencies said at the news conference that they were gathering evidence on the cause of the fires, but no conclusions had yet been reached.