3,000-Acre Blaze Near Escondido Almost Encircled; Evacuees Returning : Brush fire: Two hundred were forced to flee canyon residences. Five homes were badly damaged.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 3,000-acre brush fire west of Escondido, believed to have been caused by illegal target shooting, was nearly encircled by 600 firefighters late Tuesday, as evacuated residents went back to their blackened canyon of posh houses.

Capt. A.D. Hill of the California Department of Forestry predicted that the blaze, which forced about 200 residents to flee and seriously damaged five homes, would be extinguished by 8 p.m. today.

Firefighters still battled hot spots Tuesday, one of which started when a rat caught fire and ran east of Del Dios Highway, torching brush perilously close to the hamlet of Del Dios.

With each outbreak, helicopters quickly swooped down on nearby Lake Hodges, filling huge buckets with water and conducting air strikes on the burning brush.

"Any one of those hot spots, the wind can kick up and blow it down on the lake," said Ken Rice, a battalion chief with the San Diego Fire Department.

Elsewhere, fire crews were trying to contain as much of the remaining blaze as possible, while worrying that a shift in the wind could carry the flames northwest into the Harmony Grove area of Escondido.

With low humidity and the temperature 95 degrees in the shade, conditions were "less than ideal" for battling a fire, Hills said.

"We're going to hit it as hard as we can as early as we can," he said.

As the fire began rapidly moving along Mt. Israel Road on Monday afternoon, fire officials ordered people to leave their canyon homes.

About 100 of them took refuge for the night with friends or relatives and 100 others stayed in a Red Cross shelter set up at Del Dios Middle School.

Jerry Somohano of the Red Cross said that while many refugees returned to their homes Tuesday afternoon, they were expected back in the shelter Tuesday night because water, telephone and electrical service had not yet been restored in the canyon.

The people who ventured back to their homes were sad but generally grateful the damage was not worse.

Ray Saatjian, his hair matted with sweat, busily inspected his rose-growing operation, bemoaning the loss of about 15,000 bushes, a third of his plants. Seven of his eight greenhouses were damaged, along with his office. He estimated the damage at about $90,000.

But Saatjian's main concern was fixing the water pipes around his property in hopes of saving the rest of his roses.

"The roses are very dry, whatever is left of them," he said. "They need water but the line is burned around the perimeter."

Because insurance is so expensive, "you're pretty much on your own," he said, so he simply plans to begin again.

"We have no choice; we have to pull together and rebuild," he said.

Another canyon resident, John Love, returned to find that fire had burned all the way around his house, but stayed about 10 feet away from the structure.

Then he learned that Jim Bell, a 29-year-old bulldozer operator who was working on a recreational project when he saw the fire approach, had swung into action and cut a fire break around Love's home.

"He went up there like John Wayne," said Love. "He saved my home."

Bell, who stayed up all night and most of Tuesday helping, said, "I was just trying to save people's houses. I've worked up here and these are good folks. I wasn't trying to be a hero, that's for sure."

Fire officials have no total damage estimate and no suspects in the fire, which Hill blamed on target shooting nearby.

"I understand it was a high-powered weapon of some type," he said. He speculated that the spark from the muzzle may have ignited the blaze.

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