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Burning of home filled with explosives goes as planned

Within an hour, most of the flames were gone, and the wood-frame house in a quiet Escondido-area neighborhood was a pile of smoldering ashes.

There was no damage to surrounding residences and much of the thick, black column of smoke towering overhead had dissipated.

San Diego County officials were satisfied. Everything had gone as planned.

“This is textbook on how to do it,” said Sheriff Bill Gore, who gave the order about 10:50 a.m. to start the fire.

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A special task force of fire personnel, bomb experts and law enforcement officers supervised the controlled burn of the one-story house in the 1900 block of Via Scott, where a large quantity of explosive materials was recently found. Bomb experts had declared that it would be too dangerous to attempt to remove the materials.

After consulting with dozens of public safety agencies, Gore concluded that it would be best to burn down the house, incinerating its contents.

George Jakubec, who rented the home for more than three years, remains in federal jail in downtown San Diego, charged with bomb-making and bank robbery. Questions remain about his alleged motives in stockpiling the explosive materials, building homemade grenades and keeping blasting caps, ammunition and jars of acid.

Jakubec, 54, a Serbian emigre and software consultant, was arrested Nov. 18 after a gardener was injured in a backyard explosion.

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During questioning, Jakubec admitted to authorities that he kept explosive materials. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and remains in federal custody.

Among the items found inside the home were quantities of hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD) and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN). The latter was a material used by so-called shoe-bomber Richard Reid and is considered the weapon of choice of Al Qaeda bombers.

PETN is one of the main ingredients that the Transportation Security Administration is looking for with its new full-body screening and pat-down procedures for airline passengers.

Authorities determined that burning the home was the best way to protect the neighborhood.

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In the end, the experts were right, officials said.

“Everything they said would happen, happened,” said Todd Newman, chief of the San Marcos Fire Department. The San Marcos and Escondido fire departments stood by in case the fire spread.

Nearby Interstate 15 was closed in both directions for about 2 ½ hours. Neighbors who had been asked to evacuate were told Thursday afternoon that they could return.

Lisa Volter, a nearby resident who did not have to leave the area, said she remains shaken by the discovery at the house on the dead-end street.

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“We’re kind of surprised that so much stuff was found so close to our home in the little town of Escondido,” she said.

There were no large explosions during the fire, but cracks and pops could be heard, possibly from hand grenades and ammunition inside the home.

Flames soared four stories in the air, and heavy smoke reached about 2,000 feet before drifting slowly east, pushed by a slight sea breeze. But the smoke was considered no more hazardous than that of a “normal” house fire.

“This, so far, is perfect,” said Robert Kard, director of the Air Pollution Control District of San Diego County.

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To help the fire reach temperatures of 1,800 degrees or more, holes were bored into the roof of the house to provide the fire with the oxygen needed to burn quickly. A house fire is usually about 1,200 degrees, fire officials said.

A 16-foot wall was built between the home and its closest neighbor. A fire-retardant gel was spread on the wall. Vegetation was cut back to keep the fire from spreading.

In the end, the role of meteorologists was key. A plan for the fire to be set Wednesday was delayed because of concern about overcast skies and insufficient wind, which would mean that smoke would linger.

Bomb experts will examine the site in the next few days.

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Even though officials had for days warned of the potential danger, the fire attracted onlookers curious about the flames and smoke.

“It’s a free show,” said Cole Fugate, 19, of San Marcos. “It’s rare that you get to see a house burning and nobody trying to put it out.”

tony.perry@latimes.com


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