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Brush fires break out and spread in northern San Diego County

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More than half a dozen blazes in north San Diego County are driven by hot, dry winds
The San Diego County fires forced evacuations of schools, businesses, homes and Cal State San Marcos
Crews also battle fires in Lompoc, Santa Paula, North Hills, Long Beach and Anaheim

Brush fires broke out Wednesday in more than half a dozen spots in northern San Diego County and spread at a dangerous pace as hot, dry, erratic winds, backed by record temperatures, raked Southern California for a second day.

Elsewhere, crews battled flames in Lompoc, Santa Paula, North Hills, Long Beach and Anaheim.

The San Diego fires forced evacuations of schools, businesses, homes, a mobile-home park and Cal State San Marcos, along with causing massive traffic jams and stretching firefighting resources almost to the breaking point.

The most destructive of the blazes was the Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad, which burned several hundred acres, hopscotching between pricey neighborhoods near brushy canyons.

By midafternoon Carlsbad Fire Chief Michael Davis said three homes had been destroyed. Later in the day, Carlsbad officials said that eight homes, an eight-unit apartment building and two commercial buildings were destroyed or damaged.

Firefighters have "days of work to be done," Davis said. The fire broke into "fingers" and raced up canyons, as embers were launched by high winds into new areas.

By day's end, the fire was no longer spreading but was still not contained and hot spots remained troublesome, officials said.

Homeowners had only minutes to gather treasured belongings and pets and flee.

"There was just no time," said Greg Staska, 63, whose adobe home was destroyed. "But it's OK, I'm alive."

Some homeowners had taken precautions, installing fire-resistant roofs, cutting down combustible trees and planting fire-resistant ground cover.

Lawrence Bardon, 67, purchased a fire hose when he bought his home. When he smelled smoke Wednesday, he hooked the hose to a nearby fire hydrant.

A Carlsbad firefighter arrived and used the apparatus to spray water on Bardon's home and a neighbor's. Bardon said he thought that saved the home as embers flew through the air.

Meanwhile, the Tomahawk fire, in the northeast section of Camp Pendleton, burned more than 6,000 acres, forcing evacuations of two housing areas on base and two schools, one on base and one in nearby Fallbrook.

Fires were also reported in Oceanside, Bonsall, San Marcos, Deer Valley, the Scripps Ranch neighborhood of San Diego, and between El Cajon and Lakeside, all threatening structures but causing no reported damage.

The Twin Oaks fire, also known as the Cocos fire, prompted the evacuation of Cal State San Marcos and nearby homes as a fixed-wing aircraft dropped water. Late Wednesday, Cal Fire confirmed five structures were destroyed and two damaged.

Erik Bye, 28, a programmer at 24 Hour Fitness, experienced two fires. At work in Carlsbad, he saw smoke from the Poinsettia fire approaching. "The smoke just kept growing, growing, growing," he said. "It wouldn't stop. We weren't sure what to do."

He raced home to San Marcos where he felt it would be safe. Instead a fire erupted there and smoke blanketed his neighborhood. Without waiting for an evacuation order, Bye left.

"It's been a bad day," he said, a comment heard frequently among residents of northern San Diego County, many of whom have memories of the destructive fires of the past.

In 2003, the Cedar fire raged for 11 days, burning 280,000 acres and destroying more than 2,200 homes, making it among the largest blazes in California history. Fourteen people were killed, including a firefighter from Northern California.

In 2007, the Witch fire burned 197,000 acres and destroyed 1,202 homes, killing two people and injuring 40. The Rice fire, burning at the same time, burned 9,472 acres and 206 homes, leaving five people injured.

For Wednesday's fires, schools, shopping center, a senior center and the Pala Mesa Golf Course were pressed into service as evacuation centers. Residents with large trailers volunteered to evacuate neighbors' horses to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

At the Calavera Hills Community Center in Carlsbad, the only overnight shelter taking pets, residents trickled in Wednesday night.

Curtis Palomares, 38, stood with wife Liann, 35, outside the shelter with their two dogs in the back of their Honda Element. They had come from their home near Camp Pendleton, and they said they had no idea about its fate.

"Nobody knows about our fire," Curtis Palomares said.

Raul Soto, who evacuated from his apartment, leaned against a lamppost. A small dog on a leash stood with him. He had one word to describe how he felt: "Tired."

In the canyons next to Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, firefighters continued to battle the Bernardo fire, which erupted Tuesday and burned 1,500 acres by early Wednesday but damaged no structures. By late Wednesday, the fire was described as 50% contained.

"It's like a scene from Armageddon," one homeowner said of the region as thick, black smoke blotted out the sun in some areas.

Hundreds of homes and businesses, as well as several elementary schools and libraries, were evacuated as the blaze raged out of control. Twenty school districts announced that their schools will be closed Thursday.

Legoland in Carlsbad was closed, leaving disappointed vacationers.

The attraction did not burn, but the park was evacuated. Everyone who was evacuated received a free ticket for re-entry, said Julie Estrada, a spokeswoman for Legoland Resorts.

Firefighters throughout the county seemingly raced from fire to fire, responding to calls for assistance from neighboring communities.

"This has been a challenge with resources," Davis said. "Everybody's got priorities. Everybody is doing their darndest to protect the public."

The Tomahawk fire on Camp Pendleton, burning westward, spurred evacuations at the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Firefighters were also battling the Highway fire off Old U.S. 395 and Interstate 15 in the Deer Valley Springs area. Authorities warned Fallbrook residents who lived west of Interstate 15 to evacuate immediately because they were in harm's way.

A small brush fire also closed the 405 Freeway in both directions at Nordhoff Street in the San Fernando Valley, the latest of many traffic problems caused by fires.

In Ventura County, a brush fire broke out in an agricultural area west of Santa Paula, forcing the temporary closure of California 126. It burned about 30 acres.

A mobile home park in Anaheim was briefly evacuated due to a nearby brush fire that closed the 91 Freeway, although that blaze was soon extinguished and all lanes were reopened.

Firefighters also increased containment of the Miguelito fire in Santa Barbara County, estimated at 600 acres, to 50%.

In San Diego, Mayor Kevin Faulconer declared a local emergency, which he said will help the city be reimbursed by the federal government. Late Wednesday, Gov. Brown followed suit, issuing his own emergency proclamation to free up state personnel and resources.

tony.perry@latimes.com

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

jill.cowan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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