Wildfires Engulf Southern California, Burn More Than 20,000 Acres

A spate of wildfires charred more than 20,000 acres, as of Friday, in Southern California. The fires forced thousands to evacuate.

1. Updated — May 17, 9 p.m. PT

Fire crews discovered a “badly burned body” in a Carlsbad transient encampment Thursday. The body was discovered as firefighters checked the Poinsettia fire burn site for hot spots. Officials did not know the victim’s identity Thursday evening and did not provide additional details.

AP Photo/U-T San Diego, John Gibbins

Thousands of Californians watched the sun set Wednesday through a haze of gray smoke, wondering if firefighters would be able to save their homes.

The smoke rose from nine different wildfires across southern California, which collectively charred more than 10,000 acres. The fires, fueled by dry winds and low humidity, destroyed buildings and promoted a declaration of emergency from Gov. Jerry Brown.

Joe Cesare was among those who evacuated Wednesday. From his office near San Marcos where he had taken shelter, Cesare told BuzzFeed he spent his lunch break climbing to the top of a nearby hill. From there, he could see four separate fires in different parts of San Diego County.

Then, hours later, Cesare got the call: His own neighborhood was being evacuated after yet another blaze erupted in San Marcos. Cesare rushed home. With his wife, he threw family photos into the car, gathered up their dog, and drove away.

As Cesare waited for news Wednesday evening, he stared out of his office window watching a massive DC-10 air tanker drop fire retardant on the blaze. The air smelled smoky, he said, even inside the office.

FIRE DROP: @alschaben captures tanker dropping flame retardant near hillside homes in San Diego.

— Davan Maharaj (@DavanMaharaj)
AP Photo/U-T San Diego, Hayne Palmour IV

Update: Prosecutors have charged Alberto Serrato, 57, with arson for feeding the River fire in Oceanside. San Diego District Attorney spokeswoman Tanya Sierra told BuzzFeed Serrato is accused of throwing brush on smoldering plants in the San Luis Rey riverbed. Prosecutors do not believe Serrato started the fire.

Serrato is facing a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison, Sierra said.

Escondido Police arrested a 17-year-old boy and 19-year-old Isaiah Silva late Thursday for trying to start fires at Kit Carson Park. Witnesses reported seeing two people set a small brush fire at the park about 6:30 p.m. Thursday. About an hour later, another witness called police to say he was chasing two people that he also saw trying to set a fire at the park.

Officers soon arrived and arrested the teens at a nearby mall. Police conducted interviews Thursday, but did not elaborate on which of the county’s major fires, if any, the teens might be connected to.

The cause of the fires remains unknown. Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told BuzzFeed Thursday that there was no evidence the fires were connected or had suspicious origins. He added that with conditions as hot and dry as they have been in California, something that might normally fizzle out quickly can explode into a massive brush fire.

Berlant said fire crews are looking forward to cooler, moister air blowing in from the coast over the weekend, though the ongoing drought would likely mean a generally active fire season.

The San Diego issued 15,960 reverse evacuation orders Thursday afternoon alerting residents of evacuations.

This is a list of the most significant fires:

11. 1. The Poinsettia Fire

Update: After an active Wednesday, the Poinsettia fire calmed down somewhat Thursday. Estimates placed its total size at about 600 acres. It was 100 percent contained Saturday evening, according to Cal Fire.

Fire officials say the Poinsettia fire destroyed or substantially damaged 26 homes, including 18 apartments and eight single family houses. Two commercial building also were destroyed or substantially damaged. Another 18-unit apartment building and three more single family homes suffered damage as well.

By Thursday evening all evacuations had been lifted.

AP Photo/U-T San Diego, John Gibbins

Residents on Docena Road in Carlsbad, Calif., walk with burning brush behind them Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Thousands were asked to evacuate their homes in Carlsbad after the blaze erupted at about 10:34 a.m. Wednesday and spread through rapidly heavy brush before jumping into residential areas.

Worst part of the job. Thoughts and prayers to those who lost homes in today's fires.

— Steve Price (@PriceCBS8)

Arson investigators are looking into the fire, with San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn saying the number of separate blazes seemed like “too much of a coincidence,” according to the Times of San Diego.

Carlsbad Fire Chief Michael Davis went further: “Each fire will be looked at as a crime scene until it’s proven to be accidental.”

Among other things, the fire also forced evacuations at Legoland Wednesday.

Breaking News: LEGOLAND is in trouble! OH NO. They're evacuating the park. #fire #CarlsbadFire

— fru tron (@frutron)
AP Photo

A firefighter removes debris in a burned home during a wildfire Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in Carlsbad, California.

AP Photo

A woman is evacuated from her building during a wildfire Wednesday in Carlsbad.

The City of Carlsbad issued about 15,000 evacuation notices Wednesday. Carlsbad Unified School district also canceled class at all schools Thursday and Friday. In San Diego Unified School District, classes were canceled Thursday.

The San Diego Unified School District is reporting its schools will also close Thursday, May 15, 2014.

— SanDiegoCounty (@SanDiegoCounty)

VIEWER PICTURE | Heavy smoke billowing across Carlsbad. Please stay safe! #PoinsettiaFire #CarlsbadFire

— 10News (@10News)
AP Photo

Travis Lowell takes a picture as smoke from wildfires rise, Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in Carlsbad, California.

AP Photo

Firefighters make hike through burned vegetation during a wildfire Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in Carlsbad, California. Flames engulfed suburban homes and shot up along canyon ridges in one of the worst of several blazes that broke out Wednesday in Southern California during a second day of a sweltering heat wave, taxing fire crews who fear the scattered fires mark only the beginning of a long wildfire season.

23. 2. The Cocos Fire/San Marcos Fire

Update: Cal Fire reports that this blaze had burned 2,520 acres by Saturday evening and was 80 percent contained. Most evacuations were lifted by early Thursday evening. The fire had destroyed 8 buildings by Saturday.

Berlant said the fire died down over night but flared up Thursday afternoon as winds picked up again. The fire began moving into nearby Escondido Thursday, prompting even more evacuations.

Escondido City reported Thursday that the fire destroyed a home and two outbuildings, though spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said officials would likely have an updated list of damages Friday.

The San Marcos fire got a late start Wednesday — it didn’t begin until about 4 p.m., Tolmachoff said — but quickly grew to be among the most dangerous of Wednesday’s blazes. This fire expanded to roughly 450 acres by nightfall, in the process destroying three buildings and damaging two others, Tolmachoff told BuzzFeed.

AP Photo

Two firefighters discuss a strategy change while fighting a wildfire from the backyard of a home Thursday, May 15, 2014, in San Marcos, California.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Glenn Farrell helps his brother, Joe Brown, right, as they douse water on smoldering vegetation around their home during a wildfire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Escondido, Calif. One of the nine fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, trigging thousands of new evacuation orders.

#CocosFire damage from last night/today

— Graham Stead (@gstead)

The fire forced the evacuation of the Cal State San Marcos campus. The school also rescheduled commencement.

Helicopters are currently flying over campus dropping water from Discovery Lake to the fire right behind #CSUSM.

— Cal State San Marcos (@csusmnews)

#CSUSM Commencement Ceremonies have been rescheduled to Sat., May 24 & Sun., May 25. Thank you for understanding. http://t.co/Fq6lRSGVVu

— Cal State San Marcos (@csusmnews)

Allen called this fire the most “erratic” of al the blazes Wednesday night. This fire changed names several times; initially it was called the Washingtonian fire, and later became known as the Cocos fire.

#BREAKING: Heavy black smoke pours from new #SanMarcosFire. http://t.co/OFhmUAgh2e

— #NBC7 San Diego (@nbcsandiego)

With all of the evacuations, looting became a concern for authorities. However, during a news conference Wednesday evening San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis warned would-be looters that they could face felony charges. Dumanis also noted that it is illegal for businesses to overcharge fire victims.

DA Bonnie Dumanis: it is illegal for any business to increase prices of essential items by more than 10% in state of emergency

— SanDiegoCounty (@SanDiegoCounty)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull

A woman douses water from a hose around her home as her neighbor’s home burns during a wildfire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Escondido.

36. 3. The Tomahawk Fire

Update: This fire was 75 percent contained Saturday evening, according to Cal Fire. Camp Pendleton reported that the fire grew to about 6,500 acres by Friday morning. It did not grow Saturday.

The Tomahawk fire had burned about 6,000 acres Wednesday just east of Camp Pendleton, according to Allen.

This fire began about 9:45 a.m. at Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook. Shifting wind later sent it toward the City of Fallbrook.

Some of the fires Wednesday produced fire whirls, or spinning tornado-like columns of flame. Michael Gollner — an assistant professor of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland — told BuzzFeed the whirls are formed out of intersecting wind patterns. They can be hundreds of feet tall and spin at hundreds of miles per hour. “if you have the right conditions they can grow very large,” he said.

Gollner also pointed out that the fire whirls can fling burning debris into their surroundings, further complicating efforts to douse the flames.

FIRE TORNADO!!! #CampPendleton #PoinsettiaFire #TomahawkFire

— ❌ Ben Samack ❌ (@USMC_Bensamack)

JUST ADDED: New photos of the #TomahawkFire at Camp Pendleton http://t.co/8FJwxJubCi (Photo: @PendletonScout)

— #NBC7 San Diego (@nbcsandiego)


— Joe (@joey_tang)

42. 4. The Pulgas Fire

Update: As of Saturday evening, the Pulgas fire was up to 15,000 acres and was 40 percent contained, according to Camp Pendleton.

The Pulgas fire broke out Thursday afternoon and by 5 p.m. had burned about 600 acres at Camp Pendleton. Firefighters had not managed to contain the blaze Thursday afternoon. Cal Fire Spokesman Daniel Berlant had very little information about this fire, but confirmed that it was the third active blaze on the military base. The fire was burning near a sewage plant.

That was fast. This Las Pulgas fire at @CampPendletonCA has grown to 500 acres.

— Victoria Taft (@VictoriaTaft)

Among the three fires burning at Camp Pendleton, the only reported injury was a firefighter who suffered heat exhaustion.

View this embed ›

Camp Pendleton video shows crews mounting an aerial assault against the blaze.

46. 5. The Combat Fire

Update: This fire had burned 1,000 acres and was 25 percent contained Saturday.

Initially and sometimes still referred to as the Talega fire, this blaze erupted Friday about 11:25 a.m. at Camp Pendleton, prompting a handful of evacuations. Camp Pendleton reports that it had burned about 700 acres by Friday evening. Crews had not managed to contain it.

Aerial panorama snapped from 7,000 feet of wildfire burning at Camp Pendleton, CA, by Phil Konstantin

— BuzzFeed Storm (@BuzzFeedStorm)

The #talegafire is visible from Talega but really about 3-5 miles south and most adjacent to San Mateo Camp Ground.

— scott herson (@scottherson)

49. 6. The Freeway Fire

Update: The Freeway fire has been 100% contained as of Friday morning, according to Cal Fire.

Though initial reports indicated this fire was connected to the Tomahawk fire, it’s actually a separate blaze burning on a different section of Camp Pendleton.

According to Cal Fire, this blaze had grown to about 50 acres by Thursday afternoon.

View this embed ›

Video produced by Camp Pendleton shows crews fighting the fire from the air.

51. 7. The Bernardo Fire

Update: This fire was 100 percent contained Saturday evening.

At 1,548 acres, the Bernardo fire posed the greatest danger Tuesday with more than 5,000 evacuation orders issued to residents of San Diego County.

By Wednesday those orders had been lifted.

#BernardoFire Fire Chief Javier Mainar: Greatest danger has passed but there is still danger today. #bevigilant


Tolmachoff told BuzzFeed Wednesday evening the “forward progress of the fire has been stopped” and crews were working on mopping up the flames. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

What used to be the #BernardoFire face north to the #CocosFire. High winds blowing southeast back towards 4S.

— Ollie Neglerio (@orrrie)

56. 8. The Miguelito Fire

Update: The Miguelito fire has been 100% contained after burning 632 acres, according to Cal Fire.

AP Photo/The Santa Maria Times, Daniel Dreifuss

Fire authorities issued nearly 2,000 evacuation calls Tuesday but lifted those orders Wednesday.

AP Photo/The Santa Maria Times, Daniel Dreifuss

Santa Barbara County Fire Fighters call animal control to evacuate animals left behind after some Lompoc residents were under mandatory evacuation due to the Miguelito fire on Tuesday. Wildfires pushed by gusty winds chewed through canyons parched by California’s drought, prompting evacuation orders for 1,200 homes and businesses in Santa Barbara County.

60. 9. The Highway Fire

Update: The Highway fire is 100% contained after burning 380 acres, according to Cal Fire.

It was burning near Deer Springs, Interstate 15, and Old Highway 395 — from which it takes its name.

Change in winds created this twister #HighwayFire in Fallbrook http://t.co/wLwQxj8SSx

— Fox 5 San Diego (@fox5sandiego)

The Highway Fire forced fire officials to close Interstate 15 between Temecula and Escondido, Tolmachoff told BuzzFeed. The freeway remained closed as of 6:15 p.m. Wednesday evening.

63. 10. The Canyon Lake Fire

Update: The Lake fire is 100% contained after burning 106 acres.

This fire began sometime late Wednesday afternoon near the Scripps Ranch area of San Diego.

Firetrucks on the move in #scrippsranch Godspeed. #canyonlakefire

— Susan Quinn (@emmersonquinn)

Hearing endless sirens outside. Time to start packing my valuables in case the #CanyonLakeFire makes it to where I live in Scripps Ranch

— Mike | EDM.com (@mikewalkusky)

#CanyonLakeFire now under control. "@KimMerrill: SD Fire Copter dropping water on Hoyt Park fire in Scripps Ranch "

— SoCal Safety 1st (@SoCalSafety1st)

67. 11. The River Fire

Update: The River fire is 100% contained after burning 105 acres, according to the City of Oceanside.

The River fire was burning Wednesday in Oceanside, a city in San Diego County. An Oceanside police dispatcher told BuzzFeed the fire was smaller than others in the county and was contained to the San Luis Rey River riverbed.

Allen said this fire grew to about 50 acres.

Some evacuations had been ordered, but the dispatcher said they were lifted by Wednesday evening.

Oceanside Fire Department battling North River Road flame jumping #nbc7breaking

— Dave Summers (@SummersNBCSD)

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Jim Dalrymple is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Jim Dalrymple II at jim.dalrymple@buzzfeed.com.
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