Evacuations lifted in Fallbrook, Camp Pendleton as crews halt 4,200-acre brush fire
A brush fire erupted in north San Diego County late Wednesday and burned more than 4,200 acres overnight as flames pushed by Santa Ana winds spread toward Camp Pendleton, prompting thousands of evacuations on the Marine Corps base and in Fallbrook.
By early Thursday evening — Christmas Eve — authorities had lifted the evacuation orders, allowing families to return home, possibly in time to salvage some holiday celebrations.
No structures burned in the blaze, which was 35 percent contained Thursday evening after charring about 4,276 acres, according to Cal Fire San Diego Capt. Thomas Shoots.
The Creek fire broke out shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday off De Luz Road, roughly two miles west of Sandia Creek Drive, burning entirely on Camp Pendleton land. Gusty winds moved the blaze southwest toward hillsides that fueled the flames.
By Thursday morning, weather conditions had improved slightly, aiding the four air tankers, three water-dropping helicopters and 200 firefighters working to halt the blaze.
Firefighters from Camp Pendleton and Cal Fire San Diego stopped the fire from reaching any housing areas, the base announced on Twitter.
About 7,000 residents on the west side of Fallbrook were under an evacuation order until about 11 a.m. Thursday, when orders for some blocks were downgraded to evacuation warnings. Homes near the Alturas Street Park and in the area of De Luz Road south of Sandia Creek Drive remained under an evacuation order until that too was lifted in the late afternoon.
Officials opened what they called a temporary drive-through evacuation point at Fallbrook High School, where Red Cross representatives were on hand to offer resources.
Red Cross Communications Manager Christine Welch said a steady flow of evacuees arrived overnight and into late Thursday morning. She said the Red Cross had assisted about 100 families, setting some of them up at two area hotels. The agency did not set up a shelter at the school because of COVID-19 concerns.
One family arrived with four horses, which were unloaded from a trailer and allowed to roam the school’s baseball field.
Among the evacuees who drove up to the school was Fallbrook resident Stephen Crabtree, who said he and his wife woke up to an emergency alert on their phones about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“But you look at it and think, ‘Oh, there’s a fire,’” he said. “You don’t think it’s in your backyard.”
Then, around 3 or 3:30 a.m., he heard a sheriff’s deputy tell residents in their apartment complex to evacuate immediately. Crabtree and his wife grabbed their two dogs and some photos, then headed out.
“You learn really quickly what’s important,” he said, adding that they didn’t even think of bringing the Christmas presents.
Just before 6 p.m., Camp Pendleton announced all evacuation orders had been lifted.
The fire ignited during the county’s 12th Santa Ana wind event of the season and a red-flag fire warning from the National Weather Service that took effect Wednesday morning. The agency tweeted late Wednesday that humidity levels were in the single digits in the Fallbrook area and winds were 12 mph, with gusts up to 25 to 30 mph.
“The fire was off to the races,” Shoots said.
A half-hour after the blaze ignited, the flames had started to threaten residential communities on Camp Pendleton. By 1 a.m. Thursday, evacuations were ordered for residents in the DeLuz Family Housing, Wounded Warrior Battalion and Lake O’Neill campground areas.
Later, volunteers from the USO were on site at Camp Pendleton delivering essentials to Marine families. A Camp Pendleton spokeswoman said the costs of temporary lodging on or off base for service members will be reimbursed by the government.
In the Fallbrook area, evacuations were ordered for residents along De Luz Road, as well as nearby streets. Sheriff’s deputies went door to door to alert residents.
Shoots said officials ordered the evacuations in Fallbrook out of concern that a shift in the wind would offer “no time to get residents out in time before the fire was at their back door.”
By about 8 a.m. Thursday, the winds that had driven the flames were much calmer — “nothing like it was last night when this fire started,” Shoots said.
In the afternoon, patchy drizzle helped in the firefighting efforts a little, increasing humidity in the area, as crews worked to build containment lines around the burn area.
Authorities gave no indication Thursday evening as to what might have sparked the Creek fire.
Staff writer Andrew Dyer contributed to this report.
Riggins, Hernandez, Warth and Dyer write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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