The focal point in the battle to tame raging wildfires in San Diego County shifted late Wednesday to the San Marcos area, where hundreds of new mandatory evacuation orders were issued and firefighters were making a stand to protect hillside homes threatened by walls of flame that illuminated the nighttime sky.
More than 9,000 acres had been charred as at least a half dozen fires burned across the county. In San Marcos, a blaze that broke out earlier Wednesday had consumed about 450 acres and destroyed at least five structures and damaged two others, fire officials said.
Wednesday night, officials issued 600 mandatory evacuation notices for San Marcos-area neighborhoods including the Elfin Forest, Indian Ridge Road and Wilgen Drive areas.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection approved two helicopters to make nighttime water drops, County Supervisor Diane Jacobs said.
Earlier Wednesday, the fire in San Marcos forced authorities to evacuate residential neighborhoods and the Palomar College and the Cal State San Marcos campuses, fire officials said.
Cal State San Marcos, which has an enrollment of more than 10,000 students, was in the middle of administering spring finals when the evacuation order was issued Wednesday afternoon. The blaze burned on the hillside behind the campus, school police said.
Water-dropping helicopters and air tankers made repeated drops on the flames in the San Marcos blaze. As nighttime fell, firefighters on the ground were protecting homes as flames shot into the sky.
The blazes broke out amid searing heat and dry, gusty winds that helped create explosive fire conditions in drought-stricken hillside and mountain areas across Southern California.
An army of firefighters from local, state and federal agencies poured into San Diego County earlier Wednesday as hundreds of people fled the flames and Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency.
The situation was chaotic, but it was a scene that has played out time and again in California, a state fire official noted.
“We are no stranger to having to deal with dozens of wildfires all the time,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
In Carlsbad, 16 homes and two commercial structures were destroyed or damaged by fast-moving flames that hopscotched steep canyons, as erratic winds blew embers that created new spot fires, city officials said. Carlsbad Fire Chief Michael Davis warned that those numbers could grow as firefighters survey the scene.
At Camp Pendleton, where a blaze had charred 6,000 acres, eight Navy and Marine helicopters were making repeated water drops as thick clouds of smoke rose into the sky. The fire prompted evacuations of two housing areas on base and two schools, one on the Marine base and one in nearby Fallbrook.
In the Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad, homeowners had only minutes to gather treasured belongings and pets and flee.
“There was just no time,” said Greg Staska, 63, whose adobe home was destroyed. “But it’s OK; I’m alive.”
Some homeowners who had survived other brushfires or bought their homes with full awareness of the danger had taken precautions.
Some had installed new fire-resistant roofs. Others had cut down combustible trees and planted fire-resistant ground cover around their homes.
Lawrence Bardon, 67, purchased a fire hose when he bought his home. When he smelled smoke, he hooked the hose to a fire hydrant across from his home.
A Carlsbad firefighter who arrived shortly after Bardon fixed the hose to the hydrant used the apparatus to put water on Bardon’s home and his neighbor’s home. Bardon said he thought that was responsible for saving the home from embers flying through the air.
Other fires were reported in Oceanside, Bonsall, Deer Valley and between El Cajon and Lakeside. The blazes were threatening structures, but no damage was reported
Erik Bye, 28, a programmer at 24 Hour Fitness, experienced two fires. At work in Carlsbad, he saw smoke from the Poinsettia fire approaching. “The smoke just kept growing, growing, growing,” he said. “It wouldn’t stop. We weren’t sure what to do.”
He raced home to San Marcos where he felt it would be safe. Instead a fire erupted there and blanketed his neighborhood with smoke. Without waiting for an evacuation order, Bye left.
“It’s been a bad day,” he said, a comment heard frequently among residents of northern San Diego County, many of whom have memories of the destructive fires of the past.
For Wednesday’s fires, schools, a shopping center, a senior center and the Pala Mesa Golf Course were pressed into service as evacuation centers. Residents with large trailers volunteered to evacuate horses to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
And in the canyons next to Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, firefighters continued to battle the Bernardo fire, which erupted Tuesday and burned 1,500 acres by early Wednesday but damaged no structures. By late Wednesday, the fire was described as 50% contained.
“It’s like a scene from Armageddon,” one homeowner said of the region as thick black smoke blotted out the sun in some areas.
The Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad alone had prompted more than 11,500 safety calls -- some ordering evacuations, some calling for precautions. The fire burned at least 150 acres by midday Wednesday; firefighters could not predict when it would be fully contained.
The Legoland amusement park in Carlsbad was closed, leaving disappointed vacationers.
Heath and Gina Seifert of Glendale were en route to Legoland with their two daughters when the traffic on the 5 Freeway locked up and news of the fire spread.
“They were like, ‘Where’s Legoland from here,’ and we were like, `It might be on fire,’” Heath said of his daughters.
The attraction did not burn, but the rides were shut down and the park was evacuated and closed to guests. Everyone who was evacuated received a free ticket for reentry, said Julie Estrada, a spokeswoman for Legoland Resorts.
Firefighters throughout the county seemingly raced from fire to fire, responding to calls for assistance from neighboring communities.
“This has been a challenge with resources,” Davis said. “Everybody’s got priorities. Everybody is doing their darnedest to protect the public.”
The Tomahawk fire on Camp Pendleton, burning westward, spurred evacuations at the San Onofre nuclear power plant. For base families, an evacuation center was established at the Paige Fieldhouse on the base.
Firefighters were also battling the Highway fire off Old U.S. 395 and the 15 Freeway in the Deer Valley Springs area. Authorities warned Fallbrook residents who lived west of the 15 to evacuate immediately because they were in harm’s way.
Elsewhere in Southern California, a small brush fire also closed the 405 Freeway in both directions at Nordhoff Street in the San Fernando Valley, the latest of many traffic problems caused by fires.
In Ventura County, a brush fire broke out at 1:13 p.m. in an agricultural area west of Santa Paula, forcing the temporary closure of California 126 between Peck and Wells roads. It was not known how many acres the fire had burned, said Ventura County Fire spokesman Bill Nash.
A mobile home park in Anaheim was also briefly evacuated due to a nearby brush fire that closed the 91 Freeway in both directions, although that blaze was soon extinguished and all lanes were reopened.
At the Calavera Hills Community Center in Carlsbad, the only overnight shelter there taking pets, residents trickled in Wednesday night.
Curtis Palomares, 38, stood with wife Liann, 35, outside the shelter with their two schnoodles in the trunk of their Honda Element.
They had come from their home near Camp Pendleton, and they said they had no idea whether the structure had burned.
“Nobody knows about our fire,” Curtis Palomares said.
Hope Martinez sat on a bench, her eyes filled with tears. Her daughter, Monica, sat beside her, making phone calls.
“We don’t know where the dog is,” Hope said.
Raul Soto, who evacuated from his apartment, leaned against a lamp post. A small dog on a leash stood with him.
He had one word to describe how he felt: “Tired.”