Fierce dry winds drive California wildfires toward San Diego

A new wildfire has ignited in San Diego County, which is already reeling from a wind-driven blaze that has destroyed at least 85 structures.

Authorities say the new fire is near the mountain town of Alpine, about 48 km east of downtown San Diego. The fire remains small, but officials say they are sending numerous resources to fight it.

The larger fire, dubbed the Lilac Fire, ignited for unknown reasons Thursday during hot, fierce Santa Ana winds, which have since abated. It’s 80 km north of San Diego and exceeded 16 square kilometres in size in a matter of hours, burning dozens of houses as it tore through the tightly packed Rancho Monserate Country Club community in the small city of Fallbrook, known for its avocado orchards and horse ranches.

More than 1,000 firefighters are on the ground, aided by seven air tankers and 15 helicopters, including two each from the marines and navy.

Authorities say 10,000 people were evacuated and 900 are in shelters.

Three people were burned while escaping the flames, said Capt. Nick Schuler of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 

APTOPIX California Wildfires

Fire crews search for hot spots among destroyed homes in the Rancho Monserate Country Club community on Friday in Fallbrook, Calif. The wind-swept blazes have forced tens of thousands of evacuations and destroyed dozens of homes in Southern California. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

The fire remained uncontained early Friday although the winds subsided significantly overnight. Forecasters said the winds would return later in the day.

The fire was on the eastern border of the Marine Corps’ vast Camp Pendleton, where base fire Chief Thomas Thompson told Fox5 San Diego that the lack of wind should help the firefight. Marine and navy aircraft will join the battle, he said.

President Donald Trump on Friday morning signed a disaster declaration for the fires affecting Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties. The declaration frees up federal assistance, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Thomas Fire still raging

In Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, firefighters gained 10 per cent containment of the largest and most destructive fire in the state, which has destroyed 430 buildings. The so-called Thomas Fire has grown to 533 square kilometres since it broke out Monday. Fire crews also made enough progress against other large fires around Los Angeles to lift most evacuation orders.

Southern California Wildfires Forces Thousands to Evacuate

Houses burn in the Lilac Fire in the early morning hours of Friday near Bonsall. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The fire 80 kilometres north of San Diego, driven by winds above 56 km/h, razed rows of trailer homes in the retirement community, leaving charred and mangled metal in its wake.

It wasn’t immediately known what sparked the fire next to State Highway 76, but strong winds carried it across six lanes to the other side.

Evacuations were ordered in the area near Camp Pendleton and schools and casinos were being used as shelters.

Cynthia Olvera, 20, took shelter at Fallbrook High School.

California Wildfires

Firefighters battle a wildfire as smoke rises from burning palm trees at Faria State Beach in Ventura, Thursday. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

She had been at her Bonsall home with her younger sister and nephew when her father called from the family nursery to say the fire had reached the gate of their sprawling property.

‘I didn’t think it would move that fast’

After starting to drive away, the family turned around to recover forgotten personal documents — but it was too late. Trees were ablaze and flames were within three metres of the house.

“I didn’t think it would move that fast,” she said.

Her older sister wanted to drive in to save her husband’s car, but Olvera told her: “Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.”

southern California wildfires from ISS

The Southern California wildfires could be seen by the International Space Station crew from their vantage point in low Earth orbit. NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik photographed the plumes of smoke on Dec. 5. (Randy Bresnik/NASA)

Her sister heeded the advice and the family made it safely to the school. But the flames followed them, and the family had to pack up again when evacuation orders came for Fallbrook High School.

The family went to a second shelter, not knowing if their house survived.

As the flames approached the elite San Luis Rey Downs training facility for thoroughbreds, many of the more than 450 horses were cut loose to prevent them from being trapped in their stables if barns caught fire, said Mac McBride of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Herds of horses galloped past flaming palm trees in their chaotic escape of a normally idyllic place. Not all survived.

Horse trainer Scott Hansen said he knows that some of his 30 horses at the facility died.

“I don’t know how many are living and how many are dead,” he said.

The California Horse Racing Board said approximately 25 horses were killed when eight barns burned and others in adjacent pastures were unaccounted for. Surviving horses were taken to Del Mar race track and all of Friday’s races at Los Alamitos Race Course were cancelled as the racing community mourned.

Nearly two dozen thoroughbred horses said to be killed in California fires0:50

Along the coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara, tiny communities had so far survived close calls. Slopes along U.S. 101 were blackened, but homes remained standing at La Conchita and Faria Beach. Sections of Carpinteria were under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders, but no flames were in sight early Friday.

Scenic Ojai under threat

Inland from the coast the big fire burned vigorously in mountains near the town of Fillmore, but only outlying areas were evacuated. It also remained a threat to Ojai, a scenic mountain town of 7,000 people dubbed “Shangri-La” and known for its boutique hotels and New Age spiritual retreats.

On Thursday, ash fell like snowflakes on citrus orchards scattered around town and on Spanish-style architecture as firefighters parked their trucks around houses in anticipation of winds picking back up.

Some businesses were closed, but staples could be found at Pat’s Liquor, where Hank Cheyne-Garcia loaded up with supplies to fuel through another edgy night keeping sentry on the fire.

“It got a little too intense yesterday with the wind kicking up,” he said. “There was just so much smoke. Yesterday you couldn’t see the street.”

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