Brush fires broke out in more than half a dozen spots in northern San Diego County and spread at a dangerous pace as hot, dry, erratic winds, backed by record temperatures, raked Southern California for a second day Wednesday.
The fires forced evacuations of schools, businesses, homes, a mobile-home park and Cal State San Marcos, along with causing massive traffic jams and stretching firefighting resources almost to the breaking point.
The most destructive of the blazes was the Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad, which burned several hundred acres, hopscotching between pricey neighborhoods near brushy canyons.
By midafternoon Carlsbad Fire Chief Michael Davis said three homes had been destroyed, and eight homes and an eight-unit apartment building were damaged or destroyed, although he warned those figures might increase. An official with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also suggested the number of destroyed homes could increase.
Firefighters have "days of work to be done," Davis said. The fire broke into "fingers" and raced up canyons, as embers were launched by high winds into new areas. By day's end, the fire was no longer spreading but was still not contained, and hot spots remained troublesome, officials said.
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 installed new fire-resistant roofs. Others cut down combustible trees and planted iceplant 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.
At a news conference Wednesday night, a Cal-Fire official said a 500-acre San Marcos fire remains the most troublesome because of its "erratic behavior" with shifting winds. Five structures had been destroyed, and two damaged, Cal-Fire said.
Meanwhile, the Tomahawk fire at the Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook adjacent to Camp Pendleton burned about 6,000 acres, forcing evacuations of two housing areas on base and two schools, one on the Marine base and one in nearby Fallbrook.
Personnel at the weapons station were also ordered to evacuate.
Other fires were reported in Oceanside, Bonsall, Scripps Ranch in San Diego, Deer Valley, and between El Cajon and Lakeside, all threatening structures, although none was reported damaged.
Combined with the Bernardo fire, which erupted Tuesday, nine fires had burned more than 9,000 acres, officials said at a media briefing Wednesday night.
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.
In 2003, the Cedar fire raged for 11 days, burning 280,000 acres and destroying more than 2,200 homes, making it the largest blaze in California history. Fourteen people were killed, including a firefighter from Northern California.
In 2007, the Witch fire burned 197,000 acres and destroyed 1,202 homes, killing two people and injuring 40 persons. The Rice fire, burning at the same time, burned 9,472 acres and 206 homes, leaving five people injured.
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 adjacent 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.
Sheriff's Bill Gore said that with a change in the weather, and additional air-tankers and helicopters set to join the firefighting effort on Thursday, he is "cautiously optimistic that we're looking at a positive result."
Elsewhere in Southern California, a small brush fire 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.
Firefighters on Wednesday also increased containment of the Miguelito fire in Santa Barbara County, estimated at 600 acres, to 50%.
California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said that wildfire evacuees may be eligible for reimbursement for living expenses due to mandatory evacuations.
"San Diego [County] residents are all too familiar with the destructive force of wildfires," Jones said.