SAN MARCOS, Calif. – Firefighters aided by calmer winds made progress Thursday against a series of wildfires burning across San Diego County, and authorities collected clues and solicited the public’s help to determine what caused so many blazes to occur simultaneously.
While some of the nine fires were extinguished and thousands of people were able to return to their homes, the San Marcos blaze roared back in the afternoon. Flames raced along scrubby hillsides as massive black plumes filled the skies.
Smoke limited visibility to a few feet at times in the city of 85,000 about 35 miles north of San Diego. On one street, five horses wandered nervously in a paddock as firefighters worked to protect nearby homes and barns.
The flare-up prompted 18,400 new evacuation notices. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said it was a “reminder to everybody just how volatile this can be.”
Firefighters found a badly burned body in a transient camp in Carlsbad, a north San Diego suburb that was one of the hardest hit areas by this week’s fires. The city of Carlsbad said it had no information about the person who died – apparently the first fatality of the fires.
A Camp Pendleton Fire Department firefighter received medical treatment for heat exhaustion while fighting a square-mile fire on the Marine base.
The fires have destroyed at least eight houses, an 18-unit condominium complex and two businesses, as well as burned more than 15 square miles, causing more than $20 million in damage so far. The hardest-hit areas were in San Marcos and Carlsbad, a suburb of 110,000 people that lifted evacuation orders late Thursday.
Firefighters who have worked in temperatures sometimes topping 100 degrees this week were expected to get relief on Friday. The forecast called for temperatures to peak around 90 and lighter winds. A bigger cool-down was forecast for the weekend.
While drought conditions and unusually high temperatures made the area ripe for wildfires, there are suspicions that at least some of the blazes were set. Gore said arson is being looked at but so are many other possibilities, such as sparks from vehicles.
Fire and police investigators are working together to determine where and how the fires started. Gore encouraged the public to contact authorities with any information.
Since the fires began Tuesday, 125,000 evacuation notices have been sent. Schools and parks across the county were shut down, including California State University, San Marcos.
In San Marcos, firefighters on the ground and in the air fought to save homes as the flare-up sent flames running up a slope in a heavily vegetated area. The fire was driven by fuel and topography, said Division Chief Dave Allen of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.