A wind-fanned fire growing at a "dangerous" rate in North County has charred 4,100 acres, destroyed dozens of structures and is threatening 5,000 more, fire officials said Thursday.
At least three people were burned in the blaze, which roared through Bonsall, a rural community of ranches and agricultural lands, toward Oceanside.
At one point, a line of a dozen palm trees ignited. Homes were quickly reduced to piles of ash and teams of horses fled from the flames.
Some of the four-legged animals didn't escape.
The fire ignited off Interstate 15 in the Bonsall area as "extreme" Santa Ana winds fed major fires across Southern California, and prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in the county. It is 0 percent contained.
Large swaths of Bonsall and Oceanside were evacuated.
Everything within the Bonsall area bound by West Lilac Road, Interstate 15, Gopher Canyon Road and East Vista Way was evacuated, Cal Fire said. The area includes homes and businesses, an avocado grove, a horse training center, Sullivan Middle School and Bonsall High School.
Residents were also evacuated from the Oceanside area bordered by Burma Road, Wilshire Road, North River Road and South Mission Avenue.
Cal Fire issued an evacuation warning for the area south of North River Road, west of East Vista Way, north of Bobier Drive and east of Melrose Drive and North Santa Fe Avenue.
"Its incumbent on all the people in this area to stay alert, stay informed and, if you feel it's important, self-evacuate and get out of the way of this fast moving fire," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. "...Don't necessarily wait for that deputy to knock on your door. There aren't that many of us out there."
Although most residents appeared to flee the area, some stayed behind to watch over their homes or businesses.
Susie and Michael Lynn stood on the dirt road leading to their home, trying to put out , putting out small spot fires with garden hoses.
The couple were working at a nearby horse training center when they saw a huge cloud of smoke billowing near their neighborhood.
"We saw it getting the better of the firemen and it was heading our way," said Susie Lynn.
A number of evacuation centers were set up.
Four overnight shelters were set up: East Valley Community Center in Escondido on 2245 East Valley Parkway, Stagecoach Community Park in Carlsbad at 3420 Camino de Los Coches, Oceanside High School at 1 Pirates Cove Way, and Bostonia Recreation Center in El Cajon at 1049 Bostonia Street.
Temporary evacuation centers were set up at Fallbrook High School on 2400 South Stage Coach Lane and the Forum shopping center in Carlsbad at 1923 Calle Barcelona.
Residents who own animals were told they could bring horses and other livestock to the San Diego County fairgrounds in Del Mar, about 30 miles from Bonsall, for safety.
There will likely be more evacuations ordered overnight for residents living in the area, said Ron Lane, the county's Deputy Chief Administrative Officer who oversees public safety.
"This is not over," he said. "...This is a very dangerous period of time we are going through in the County of San Diego over the next 24 to 48 hours."
The fast-moving fire prompted many roads to be closed, including east state Route 76 between East Vista Way and Interstate 15, west Route 76 between South Mission Road and Old Highway 395. Old Highway 395 was also closed at Lilac Road.
"This is a wind driven fire that is moving at a dangerous rate," CalFire Capt. Jon Heggie said. "This is an extremely dynamic situation. We're trying our best to get out ahead of it to try and keep people safe."
A number of school districts will be closed Friday.
Many of the structures that were initially destroyed were mobile homes in the Rancho Moserate Country Club on Dulin Road. The upscale, senior mobile home park borders a 9-hole golf course.
Around 4 p.m., TV footage from a helicopter showed at least 50 of the mobile homes were on fire or already destroyed.
It's unclear where other destroyed structures may be located. An unknown number of structures have been damaged, Cal Fire said.
Passing motorists reported the fire near the right-hand shoulder of I-15 about 11:15 a.m. Flames quickly charred 50 acres, and evacuations were announced soon after.
The fire was propelled by gusts of about 30 to 35 mph, the National Weather Service said.
A number of agencies rushed to the area to help douse the fire including crews from Camp Pendleton. About 700 firefighters are battling the blaze.
A number of firefighting aircraft were also dropping water and fire retardant on the flames throughout the day, and two helicopters were expected to continue into the night.
A helicopter leased by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. that can drop up to 2,650 gallons of water — the equivalent to five fire engines — was dispatched around noon to help fight the blaze.
The copter can be airborne within 15 minutes and takes only 45 seconds to refill its tanks, said SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao.
The blaze spread to the San Luis Rey Training Center, a horse training center on Camino Del Rey.
Flames roared through the facility, destroying most of the barns. Trainers initially tried to coax the horses onto a main track at the facility, but as flames encroached, they simply set the panicky horses free.
Workers risked getting trampled to let the animals out.
Mac McBride, spokesman for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said horses are being accepted at the fairgrounds' Stable Gate off Jimmy Durante Boulevard. They also can be taken to the Del Mar Horse Park just east of I-5 at El Camino Real.
Horse owners are advised to bring bedding and feed that is identifiable, McBride said.
Dan DeSousa, director of the county Animal Services Department, said they've owners of dogs and cats should get crates and cases ready to take their small animals when they evacuate.
He said it wasn't known how many animals had died in Thursday's fire.
"We are watching news like you are," DeSousa said. "We've heard some horses that have been lost and that's a tragic thing. It is almost expected in a situation like this. At this point we don't have numbers."
Anyone who needs help evacuating their animals can call the county's 24-hour emergency dispatch line at (619) 236-2341.
The Bonsall High School District said in a statement that buses quickly transported students who weren't picked up by parents to the Bonsall Community Center on 1505 Old River Road. They were later taken to the Fallbrook High gymnasium.
"We have good heads up and were able to get every bus here and every kid loaded just before we saw flames coming right over the hill," said Joseph Clebenger, principal of Sullivan Middle School.
Traffic was thick in the area. California Highway Patrol Officer Mary Bailer said drivers should avoid the area if they can.
"There are just miles of traffic on the 76, so if you don't need to be on the 76, stay off of it," she said.
The temperature in the area was about 80 degrees. Humidity was about four percent.
Staff writers Paul Sisson, David Hernandez and J. Harry Jones contributed to this report.
Lyndsay Winkley writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
8:35 p.m.: This article was updated with more information about the fire.
4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with increased numbers of losses.
1:30 p.m.: This article was updated with details of destroyed structures and mandatory evacuations.