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Cal Fire: Get Ready San Diegans For A 'Prolonged Fire Season'

Firefighters watch the burning brush on the Camp Pendleton Marine base on May 16, 2014. Firefighters from the base and Cal Fire fought the Las Pulgas fire, one of three to ignite within a couple of days of each other on the base.
Marine Cpl. Sarah Wolff
Firefighters watch the burning brush on the Camp Pendleton Marine base on May 16, 2014. Firefighters from the base and Cal Fire fought the Las Pulgas fire, one of three to ignite within a couple of days of each other on the base.

The wildfires that erupted over the past week in San Diego County scorched some 27,000 acres, destroyed 65 homes and sent what one official called a signal that we’re in for a “fairly prolonged fire season.”

“Everybody now has a solid sense of what the fire season is going to be like,” Cal Fire spokesman Bill Murphy said Sunday.

By Sunday, only four active fires were burning in the county, and three of them were on Camp Pendleton. All of the evacuation orders that had been ordered for thousands of homes during the past several days had been lifted. Classes at all San Diego County school districts also are to resume Monday, after many closed on Thursday and Friday.

Firefighters attacking the brush fires this past week were fortunate that all of the blazes remained “relatively small,” Murphy said. Only eight grew to more than 100 acres, with the Las Pulgas fire on Camp Pendleton being the largest at 15,000 acres.

Another factor that Murphy said helped the firefighters — wildfires weren’t burning in the rest of state so resources could be focused on San Diego County.

Murphy doubts that will be the case later in the year, when temperatures will heat up throughout California and the fire risk will grow. Then fire agencies will have to share firefighters and the aerial resources used to stamp out the blazes, he said.

When wildfires ravaged San Diego County in 2003 and 2007, large brush fires were raging at the same time in other parts of the state.

To put this past week’s fires in perspective, consider this:

• In October 2003, the Cedar, Paradise and Otay Mesa fires in one week consumed 376,237 acres. More than 2,500 homes were destroyed, and 17 people died.

• In October 2007, the Witch Creek, Harris, Poomacha, Horno/Ammo and Rice fires in one week scorched 368,430 acres. Nearly 1,600 homes were destroyed, and 10 people died.

So far, only one death is being investigated in connection with the fires this past week.

The body of a man, possibly a transient, was found in the fire debris left in the wake of the 600-acre Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad. Authorities have not yet been able to identify him or determine if he died in the fire.

Authorities have determined the cause of only two of the fires: a mechanical failure with construction equipment sparked the nearly 1,600-acre Bernardo fire that started in 4S Ranch and burned to Rancho Santa Fe, and a big rig filled with fuel ignited and set off the 56-acre Freeway fire north of Oceanside.

A multi-agency arson task force is investigating the cause of all of the other fires, Murphy said.

Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall told KPBS that investigators were studying the origin of the Poinsettia fire within four hours of it starting Wednesday morning. The sheriff’s bomb-arson squad also was on the scene shortly after the 17-acre Aurora fire erupted about 5 p.m. Wednesday in Lakeside.

Authorities made three fire-related arrests last week. On Wednesday, Oceanside police arrested a man who prosecutors later accused of fanning the 105-acre River fire that started Wednesday in the brush of the San Luis Rey River. Escondido police arrested two teens Thursday night in connection with starting two small brush fires that were quickly extinguished near Kit Carson Park.

In the week ahead, county and city governments along with other agencies will be helping those who lost their homes and businesses and had them damaged.

The greatest structural losses were in the Carlsbad and San Marcos fires.

In Carlsbad, initial damage estimates total $22.5 million and include the loss of eight houses, an 18-unit apartment building and two commercial businesses.

In the nearly 2,000-acre Cocos fire, 39 homes were destroyed in San Marcos and in the unincorporated area just outside the city limits. More than 20 structures were lost at the century-old church retreat run by the Harmony Grove Spiritual Association.

Yvonne Birdsell, who is on the retreat’s board of directors, lost her home in the fire. She evacuated Wednesday and has been staying with her daughter in Escondido.

“It’s just material things I lost," Birdsell said. "I still have my dog and my family. That stuff can't be replaced. The important things we still have.”

With the fires winding down on Sunday, many were taking a step back and reflecting on the past week, saddened by the destruction but pleased that it wasn’t worse.

Murphy with Cal Fire said the firefighters know that the blazes that swept through San Diego County are a harbinger.

“This is the sign of the things to come,” he said.

But the people who witnessed the work of the firefighters aren’t thinking quite yet about what’s next. They’re thankful for what the fire crews did.

Many took to social media to offer their thanks, including Angela McKernan, who posted this on Sunday on the Camp Pendleton Scout Facebook page:

“Thanks again to all the awesome fire fighters that kept us all safe from these nasty fires!”