A destructive wildfire driven by strong winds swept through northern San Diego County on Thursday, moving toward Oceanside and other coastal communities and forcing new evacuations as it consumed homes.
The fast-moving Lilac fire spread through the Bonsall area, charring 4,100 acres along the State Route 76 corridor, destroying 20 structures and threatening 5,000 more. Powerful Santa Ana winds fanned flames westward.
"People need to be ready because this fire could make it all the way through Oceanside to the coast if it continues," Cal Fire Division Chief Nick Schuler told reporters Thursday evening. The 76 was closed at Interstate 15.
Three people were burned when they couldn't escape flames fast enough, while another was hospitalized with smoke inhalation. Two firefighters were also injured, one with smoke inhalation and another after dislocating a shoulder. The latter popped his shoulder back in and returned to work, authorities said.
An estimated 25 horses died when flames ripped through the San Luis Rey Training Center, a thoroughbred racehorse facility on Camino Del Rey where nearly 500 horses were stabled, according to the California Horse Racing Board.
Some horses were evacuated before fire officials said it was too dangerous to enter the area to pick up the remaining horses, the board said in a statement.
Workers initially tried to coax the horses onto a main track at the center, but as flames encroached, they simply set the panicky horses free.
They risked getting trampled to let the animals out of their stalls.
"There are horses running all loose down here," trainer Cliff Sise told the bloodhorse.com, which covers horse racing and breeding. "People have lost horses. Barns have burned down. It just happened so fast that [we] had to do something."
Many of the horses that survived were taken to the Del Mar Racetrack. But as of 7:30 p.m. Thursday, about 30 horses were still at the center waiting to be evacuated. And some were still missing, as nightfall prevented officials from thoroughly searching the area.
By late Thursday, a shopping center was being consumed by the blaze. At the Rancho Monserate Country Club, a swath of upscale mobile homes bordering a golf course had already been reduced to ash and twisted metal.
Residents of Vista, Oceanside, Fallbrook, Bonsall and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton who weren't already ordered to evacuate were told to be ready to flee. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the county as night-flying helicopters prepared to make water drops.
"This is a wind-driven fire that is moving at a dangerous rate," Cal Fire 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."
In Murrieta, a fast-moving wildfire destroyed at least one home and triggered evacuations, most of which were lifted late Thursday. The blaze, reported about 1:15 p.m. near Los Alamos and Liberty roads, scorched 300 acres in about three hours and is 10% contained, according to Cal Fire. About 300 firefighters were tackling flames moving through heavy fuels. Dozens of residents were left without power.
The new blazes come as fatigued firefighters in Los Angeles County began to make progress on major fires that together have destroyed or damaged more than 30 homes and prompted the evacuations of more than 100,000 people.
The 475-acre Skirball fire in Bel-Air has not grown in nearly a day, a testament to the overnight assault that crews launched on the western and northern edges of the fire, close to the 405 Freeway and multimillion-dollar homes, officials said.
The 30% containment figure means firefighters have cleared brush to make a fire break, or hauled in hoses, to stop the blaze from advancing along about one-third of the fire's perimeter.
"We're not done," said Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas. "We're in the middle of this event."
One firefighter was injured early Wednesday and is receiving treatment for burns on his neck.
The LAFD tested a new technology Thursday: a drone that used thermal imaging to seek out hot spots, a high-tech way of directing crews to areas that need attention. The drone will also assess property damage, Terrazas said.
The Skirball fire destroyed four houses on Casiano Road, Moraga Drive and Linda Flora Drive, and damaged a dozen others.
The Creek fire in the mountains above Sylmar was more destructive. It burned 15,323 acres, destroyed 15 structures and damaged an additional 15. By Thursday evening, the blaze was 20% contained. Authorities expected that number to rise and lifted most evacuation orders, allowing many residents to return home.
Though flames were burning much less intensely, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti warned residents that it's still an insecure time.
"We still have winds that, through Saturday, can pick up without any notice," he said.
Carlos Angulo, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, wound his way up and down Kagel Canyon Road on Thursday, familiar with the neighbors — many of whom work in the film industry — on his route.
Except now, the street was lined with charred trees, melted playground equipment and destroyed homes, casualties of the Creek fire.
Angulo, who has worked this route for about 13 years, pulled up outside the ashes of one home. He greeted the owner by name, as well as another resident — handing them both their mail.
"I'm going to hold the mail for you in the office until you find a place or something," Angulo told the woman, who was seeing her destroyed home for the first time.
The woman he'd delivered mail to was visibly shaken, as she looked at what was left of her home. She declined to speak for an interview.
"They're like my family. I see them every day," Angulo said. "It's very sad."
Outside her home, neighbor Mathew Trippler introduced himself to the woman and told her how sorry he was.
His home, a little farther down, had survived the blaze.
"It went the first night?" she asked him.
He told her he thought it had.
She told him she'd awakened to red windows on Tuesday.
"I hope my cat got out," she told Trippler.
Residents heard from the fire department that 10 homes burned in Kagel Canyon.
The San Diego-Union Tribune contributed to this report.
12:15 a.m.: This article was updated with more information about structures burned.
12:05 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the horses that died in the fire.
10 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from authorities.