Firefighters battling 4,400-acre blaze in San Diego County make progress in blistering heat
Firefighters were working in scorching heat Thursday battling a wildfire in east San Diego County that so far has burned more than 4,400 acres, destroyed three homes and left two people critically burned, authorities said.
The blaze, called the Border 32 fire, ignited Wednesday afternoon and spread quickly, threatening the community of Potrero in San Diego County’s backcountry. A few hours later, flames pushed south, jumping State Route 94 and burning toward the U.S.-Mexico border in the Tecate area.
At a news conference near Jamul Casino, county officials warned residents that the blistering weather isn’t going to change anytime soon and urged them to be prepared in case this fire kicks up again or other fires ignite.
“The fire is holding at 4,438 acres — it is not currently expanding,” said Cal Fire San Diego Chief Tony Mecham, who noted that firefighters are working in “absolutely miserable conditions.” Temperatures reached as high as 108 degrees Thursday at Barrett Lake, about six miles north of the origins of the fire.
“While this afternoon I feel cautiously optimistic about where we are at, we also recognize we are one spark across the fire line away of having a repeat of yesterday afternoon,” Mecham said.
By Thursday evening the blaze was 14% contained. An evacuation order remained in place for much of the area, although residents west of Cochera Via Drive and east of Potrero Valley Road — near the outer edges of the fire — were allowed to return home.
At the height of the firefight, nearly 400 firefighters, aided by 14 aircraft, worked to gain control of the flames, Mecham said.
In addition to the three homes, the fire has destroyed three outbuildings, two sheds, two RVs, three barns and a commercial structure, officials said.
Firefighters probably will spend the next seven days working to extinguish the blaze, Mecham said.
Officials stressed how important it is for people to heed calls to evacuate if a fire is burning in their area.
“If there’s an evacuation order, we need you to evacuate,” said county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, whose own home in City Heights was burned in January — the target of a suspected arson. He acknowledged it can be difficult and unsettling to leave a home that’s threatened by fire.
But evacuating when ordered “not only protects life but it makes our first responders’ jobs easier,” he said.
Supervisor Joel Anderson, who represents eastern San Diego County, said any resident who suffers fire damage or loses their home should contact his staff for assistance.
“We are geared and ready to go to help you get the appropriate permits to help you get back online as quickly as possible,” he said.
California officials have extended a Flex Alert into Friday, and triple-digit heat at a fire near Castaic forced officials to pull back some firefighters on the front lines.
On Thursday afternoon, authorities allowed residents of the Barrett Lake mobile home park to return to their homes and pick up items, but not stay. The park off Barrett Lake Road was evacuated Wednesday soon after the fire blew up.
Roberto Rodriguez had returned to his home to pick up his red 1965 Mustang, some clothing and electronics. His wife and two children, ages 13 and 4, had left the home the day before and went to the evacuation shelter at Jamul Casino.
As he spoke, a helicopter made a water dump on a hillside near the park. Rodriguez said he and his wife bought the home just six months ago, and he was stressed to leave it as the fire continued to burn.
“But the most important thing is my family,” he said. They were going to stay with a friend in Jamul.
Maricela Gaxiola and her husband returned Thursday afternoon to the home they have lived in the last four years with their two children, ages 8 and 10, and family dog Rambo. On Wednesday she had driven to school in Potrero to pick up the children, but on the way back was not able to get into the park because the fast-moving fire had forced evacuations.
The family spent the evening in the Jamul Casino shelter. Gaxiola’s husband was able to retrieve the family pickup and motorcycles, and they returned to grab clothing for the family. “I’m hopeful firefighters will be able to fully control the fire,” she said.
At the Mountain Empire High School evacuation site, about 70 people showed up during the day. Some were there Wednesday as well, said Capt. Israel Pinzon of Cal Fire San Diego. He said the evacuees were in good spirits but anxious.
“They really want to get back to their houses,” he said. “They want to be able to feed their animals. Some people weren’t able to get to their houses because they were at work. Some people have livestock. And obviously some of them want to know if their home is still up.”
At the site, evacuees had water and food, and meals were being prepared. The Red Cross was on hand to help with medical needs and the San Diego Humane Society was helping with food, bowls and blankets for pets.
Pets at the shelter included 23 dogs, a chicken, four cats, two geckos and a guinea pig, according to the San Diego Humane Society.
County officials praised the work of firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and others in helping to rescue and evacuate residents as the flames grew close. Animal services personnel rescued horses in the Barrett Lake area around midnight “under fire conditions,” Mecham said.
Officials said the county’s Department of Animal Services and the San Diego Humane Society rescued 15 animals overnight, including horses, tortoises, cats, dogs and a cow. On Thursday, their teams rescued a llama and a horse running loose. They also checked on animals in the evacuation zone, ensuring they had water and food.
Mecham said two people suffered second- and third-degree burns and were taken by helicopter to the UC San Diego Burn Center. He said he did not have any information about the victims’ identities.
First responders also assisted five migrants Wednesday night who apparently had crossed the border and found themselves in the midst of the blaze. Border Patrol agents, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters rescued the five, who had “made their way to Highway 94 and were in peril,” Mecham said. He said the group was turned over to Border Patrol agents.
“While they were not injured, I can tell you those people ran for their lives last night and their faces expressed what they went through,” Mecham said. “They had a very close call.”
The fire led authorities to close the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in Tecate, and State Route 94 was closed essentially from Campo to Dulzura. The border crossing was expected to remain closed Friday morning.
Schools in the Mountain Empire Unified School District and the Jamul-Dulzura Union School District were closed Thursday and will be closed again Friday, the San Diego County Office of Education said.
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