Investigators look for arson in wildfire outbreak

Print
Email
|

by Elliot Spagat and Julie Watson, Associated Press

azfamily.com

Posted on May 15, 2014 at 10:17 AM

Updated Friday, May 16 at 5:23 PM

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- With evacuation orders being lifted Friday, investigators worked to determine whether an unusually early and intense outbreak of wildfires in Southern California this week was ignited by something as ordinary as sparks from cars or something as sinister as an arsonist.

State fire officials said the first of at least 10 blazes that erupted between Tuesday and Thursday was found to have been caused by a spark from malfunctioning construction equipment. But it could take months to get to the bottom of the most damaging fires.

"We are not ruling out anything," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said.

All together, the wildfires have raced through an estimated 20,000 acres about 30 miles north of San Diego, causing more than $20 million in damage. One burned body was found in an encampment of homeless people. At least eight houses and an 18-unit condominium complex were destroyed, and tens of thousands of people were warned to leave their homes.

Eight of the blazes popped up between late morning and sundown on Wednesday, raising suspicions that some had been set.

The region has become a tinder box in recent days because of conditions not normally seen until late summer - extremely dry weather, 50 mph Santa Ana winds and temperatures in the 90s. On Friday, though, cooler weather aided the 2,600 firefighters, and thousands of people began returning home.

In one of the hardest-hit cities, Carlsbad, investigators finished examining the burn site across the street from a park and focused on interviewing people who called a hotline that was set up to report any suspicious activity.

"Do people have suspicions? Yes," said police Capt. Neil Gallucci, noting there has been no lightning that could explain the blazes. "But can we confirm them? The answer is no."

Police in the city of Escondido arrested two people, ages 17 and 19, for investigation of arson in connection with two small fires that were extinguished within minutes. But they found no evidence linking the suspects to the 10 bigger wildfires.

The list of possible causes is long.

"Our investigation might be over quickly for some of these fires - say, if we find a piece of metal nearby from a catalytic converter that back-fired," the sheriff said. "But others might not be so easy to determine. We'll be talking to people in the areas to see if they saw anything to see if arson might have had a role."

Investigators will visit each burn site and go down a list, marking what they know and don't know.

Is it near a road? That raises the possibility that the flames were ignited by a hot tailpipe, sparks from a catalytic converter or a discarded cigarette from a motorist. Is there a railroad nearby? Are there any power lines?

Investigators will also study the ground for footprints or tire tracks and analyze the burn pattern.

Two of the blazes broke out at military bases, where training exercises with gunfire have been known to spark flames.

A 2003 wildfire in Southern California that killed 15 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and blackened 300,000 acres in October and November was caused by a lost hunter who set a signal fire. Sparks from power lines were blamed for wildfires in the San Diego area in 2007 that left five people dead and burned down about 1,500 homes.

This time, the hardest-hit areas were in the cities of San Marcos, where a college campus shut down and canceled graduation ceremonies, and Carlsbad, where the Legoland amusement park was forced to close.

A dozen wildfires popping up in a single day is not unheard of in the drought-stricken state, but it's a phenomenon usually seen during the dog days of summer.

"What makes the San Diego area fires so unique is that we had tinder-dry conditions and Santa Ana winds in the month of May, and that's unprecedented," state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

---

Spagat reported from Escondido, California.

--

5 of San Diego-area fires fully contained

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- San Diego County officials say five wildfires have been 100 percent contained.

County officials said Friday that firefighters also had 90 percent containment of the week's first big fire, which erupted Tuesday in the community of Rancho Bernardo.

Crews were focusing efforts on two large fires - one in the city of San Marcos and two blazes at the Marin Corps' Camp Pendleton.

The San Marcos fire burned more than 3,000 acres and forced thousands from their homes. The two Pendleton fires have burned more than 14,000 acres of military lands.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

Some evacuation orders were lifted early Friday in an area near the fiercest of several wildfires in San Diego County, as crews building containment lines around the blazes hoped cooler temperatures will help them make further progress.

County officials said residents of two neighborhoods of San Marcos were allowed to return home. A flare-up Thursday in the north San Diego suburb prompted more than 18,000 new evacuation notices as flames raced through tinder-dry brush on hillsides. That fire was 10 percent contained Friday morning.

Fires have destroyed at least eight houses, an 18-unit condominium complex and two businesses since Tuesday. The hardest-hit areas were in San Marcos and Carlsbad, a suburb of 110,000 people that lifted evacuation orders late Thursday.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said Friday that sparks from faulty construction equipment working on a graded field caused the first of the string of blazes.

The fire that erupted Tuesday and charred more than 1,500 acres in the Rancho Bernardo suburb was ruled accidental. The causes of eight other wildfires that broke out the next day and another large blaze at Camp Pendleton that started on Thursday have not been determined.

Firefighters found a badly burned body Thursday in a transient camp in Carlsbad - the first apparent fatality - and a Camp Pendleton Fire Department firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion.

To the north, crews battled two fires at Camp Pendleton, including the one that broke out Thursday and grew overnight from 600 acres to 8,000, base officials said. It was 10 percent contained Friday. The second fire, sparked Wednesday on the eastern outskirts of the Marine base, scorched nearly 10 square miles of dry brush. That blaze was 23 percent contained Friday.

This week's unseasonably early wildfires have driven tens of thousands from their homes and shut down schools and amusement parks, including Legoland, which reopened Thursday. The flames have caused more than $20 million in damage.

In Escondido, just southeast of San Marcos, Al Said stood in front of his spared home on Friday and pointed out two burned neighboring houses. He chose not to evacuate and used a garden hose to help firefighters save his home.

"By the grace of God and the hard work of these firefighters, they came in and they saved my house right here," he told The Associated Press. "It was pretty touch and go. Just an awesome sight when you see that fire come through. It's just terrifying."

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.

It could take months to find the causes of the blazes concentrated in the northern San Diego and its northern suburbs, from the coast to areas 10 to 15 miles inland. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said arson will be among the many possibilities that investigators will examine.

Police in Escondido, a city north of San Diego, arrested a teenager and adult for investigation of arson in two small fires that were extinguished within minutes in a park area near a mall. Lt. Neal Griffin said Friday authorities are not ruling out anything yet but have found no evidence linking the two to the large blazes.

Crews, along with engines and aircraft, were ready to spring into action when the first fire ignited Tuesday after being sent to the region in anticipation of a heat wave and gusty winds.

The positioning of crews was among several steps fire officials say they have been fine-tuning since 2003 when the San Diego area experienced one of the worst infernos in California's history. Communications between firefighting agencies has improved, residents are notified more quickly when to evacuate, and more aircraft are available to dump water on fast-moving flames.

San Diego County had some of the strongest Santa Ana winds on Wednesday, with gusts reaching up to 50 mph, which may have set conditions for fires to be easily ignited, just as they were in 2003. The 2003 Cedar Fire scorched more than 437 square miles, nearly 3,000 buildings - including more than 2,000 homes - and killed 15 people before being contained.

The tragedy led to California creating one of the world's most robust firefighting efforts, which resulted in the smooth evacuation of thousands this week and crews able to save hundreds of homes from being consumed by the fast-moving wildfires, said Battalion Chief Nick Schuler of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Before another devastating wave of fires swept the San Diego region in 2007, the city and county introduced a system of automated calls to homes and businesses. Previously, evacuations were accomplished by going door to door or driving down the streets with loudspeakers.

Upgrades at dispatch centers have allowed firefighting agencies to share resources far more quickly by computer, a contrast to 2003 when agencies had to pick up the phone to move engines around, said David Allen, division chief for the state firefighting agency.

There is also a stronger relationship between the state firefighting agency and the military, which had 22 aircraft fighting the fires Thursday.

Those procedures are expected to be tested further as drought-plagued California heads into the summer months of what is expected to be one of its busiest firefighting seasons yet.

---

Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles contributed to this report. AP video journalist Haven Daley contributed from Escondido.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Flare-up keeps San Diego fire situation tenuous

SAN MARCOS, Calif. (AP) -- 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.

Sheriff Bill Gore said the flare-up prompted more than 13,000 new evacuation notices and served as 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.

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. No major injuries were reported.

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.

While local authorities congratulated themselves for the cooperative effort among agencies and the bravery shown by firefighters, not everyone was pleased.

Greg Saska stood in front of his charred Carlsbad home Thursday in sandals that showed his soot-covered feet. He said he was not impressed with the fire response.

"I don't want to complain, but I wish they had just made a little more effort to put the fire out," Saska said. "The end of the house ... was still burning. And they (firefighters) just left. And I'm just kinda going, `What would've been the big deal to stay here another 10 minutes and put that out totally?' I just don't get it."

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 being driven by fuel and topography, said Division Chief Dave Allen of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"It's created its own weather pattern there as it sucks oxygen in," he said.

State fire Capt. Kendal Bortisser said the fire was running east along hillsides behind California State University, San Marcos, which canceled graduation ceremonies because of the danger from the flames.

The 1 1/2-square-mile blaze was only 5 percent contained by late Thursday afternoon.

Calmer winds allowed aircraft to make a heavy contribution to the firefighting efforts. Four air tankers and 22 military helicopters were being used, in addition to local agency helicopters.

Ten of the military helicopters were being used to battle a blaze that grew to almost 9 1/2 square miles on the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton.

---

Watson reported from San Diego. Contributing to this report were AP photographer Lenny Ignelzi and videographer Raquel Maria Dillon in San Marcos, and AP writers Robert Jablon and John Antczak in Los Angeles.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

--

9 wildfires burn across San Diego County

CARLSBAD, Calif. (AP) -- Nine wildfires covering more than 14 square miles scorched San Diego County on Wednesday, forcing thousands to flee their homes and prompting the closures of a college campus and Legoland California. No major injuries were reported.

Firefighters contended with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and gusty winds as they tried to contain flames fueled by brush and trees left brittle by drought. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries - one heat-related and one from smoke inhalation.

The biggest concern late Wednesday was in San Marcos north of San Diego, where a new blaze broke out in the late afternoon, some 21,000 evacuation notices were sent to residents and a California State University campus with nearly 10,000 students was evacuated.

The most destructive of the fires was in the coastal city of Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego and home to Legoland. The park was closed because of a power outage caused by the fire.

The city's schools also were closed, as most of the county's would be on Thursday, and officials expected they wouldn't reopen until next week.

Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall said the blaze consumed an eight-unit condominium complex, as well as damaged eight homes and two businesses. Thousands were asked to evacuate their homes.

As the flames surged, a steady stream of residents stopped at a roadblock on a four-lane thoroughfare as they tried to return home to collect valuables.

Richard Sanchez watched nervously as a plume of black smoke rose near his home. He had left his house an hour earlier to run an errand.

"All I want to do is get there and evacuate," Sanchez said. "We have a plan, but I can't execute it."

As authorities yelled "Please evacuate!" in Joe Post's neighborhood, he grabbed a garden hose and doused a palm tree in flames between his home and his neighbor's. He debated about leaving his home, but he was worried what he might find upon returning.

"Work water, work!" he shouted, spraying down charred landscaping.

As the afternoon wore on, firefighters made progress in stopping the blaze's spread, and 10 percent of it was contained by early evening.

Other areas in the county also flared up, then calmed down by nightfall.

A fire on the edge of San Diego in the community of Lakeside prompted brief evacuations in the early evening Wednesday that were called off a few hours later.

Yet another fire blackened 6,000 acres on the Camp Pendleton Marine base, but a handful of evacuations were over by evening.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Diego County, which would free up special resources and funding for the firefight, and state fire officials were creating a central command center for the blazes.

Drought conditions have made fire danger extremely high throughout much of California. Officials have encouraged residents in fire-prone areas to prepare evacuation plans and clear brush from near their homes.

The Carlsbad fire broke out around 10:30 a.m. and spread through heavy brush before jumping into residential areas.

The wind-driven wildfire tossed embers onto roofs and trees, igniting them. Firefighters found themselves evacuating people and battling the blaze at the same time.

The city's fire chief said the blazes were unprecedented in his 27-year firefighting career because they are so early in the year.

"This is May, this is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October," Chief Michael Davis said. "I haven't seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May."

Meantime, firefighters gained ground on another San Diego County fire that broke out Tuesday and forced the evacuation of 20,000 homes. Authorities reported 50 percent containment of the 2.42-square-mile fire that broke out in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego.

The causes of the various fires were under investigation.

One blaze spread from a burning vehicle on coastal Interstate 5 to roadside brush near the northwest corner of Camp Pendleton.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Print
Email
|