Fires are part of the Western North America lifestyle, unfortunately. “Every summer, smoke fills the big skies yet people continue to build in the places that burn most,” said Felicity Barringer Taubman, a senior reporter for The New York Times and also a California resident, in an article last summer. She noted vexing and increasing problems at the urban/wildland interface. These days, “more people live in these areas, and many balk at controls on how and where to build.”
The problem is not expected to get any better, experts say. In fact, human activity affecting earth’s atmosphere is expected to make them worse. A study published last year by US Forest Service researchers concluded that wildfires were expected to increase 50% across the United States under a changing climate, and over 100% in areas of the West by 2050. This May’s cluster of San Diego fires may be only a portent.
Here’s where some of the major San Diego fires stood at midday Saturday, according to the agencies responsible for tracking them. The four fires at Camp Pendleton, combined, have consumed the most land: over 22,000 acres. The Poinsettia Fire at Carlsbad caused the greatest damage. Las Pulgas, one of the last fires of the series, spread quickly over a wide area and is yet uncontained. Other fires have occurred in several nearby counties in the interim. The list begins below begins with County of San Diego fires that are still active and ends with contained (encircled) fires.
Tomahawk Fire (Camp Pendleton Fire)
Marine Corps Camp Pendleton managed this fire and two others. One of the largest San Diego fires, the 6,500-acre Tomahawk Fire started on Tuesday morning near the Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook gate on the east side of the base at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, a mammoth Marine base and training facility for multiple military branches. The Tomahawk Fire, also known as the Camp Pendleton Fire, forced evacuations and shut down the Naval Weapons Station’s operation.
The Marines have charge of Tomahawk, with Cal Fire assisting. Ten of the military helicopters have been used to fight this blaze. Evacuation orders were soon issued for the station, several schools and residential areas, and the military housing area around the shut-down San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. About a dozen nonessential staff at San Onofre were evacuated. By 8 PM Wednesday, the Tomahawk Fire had traveled to Camp Pendleton itself and reached a size of 6,000 acres.
Tomahawk was reported as 20% contained the next morning and was no longer considered much of a threat to communities then. As of yesterday morning, it had grown to 9.37 square miles, but firefighters seemed fairly sure the rest would be easy to handle.
Combat Fire (San Mateo Fire)
The Combat Fire (also referred to as the San Mateo Fire) started at around noon on Friday in the Talega area of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Cal Fire is assisting the Marines with this one. It had burned 1,000 acres before noon Saturday and is currently listed as 25% contained.
Las Pulgas Fire
Off Interstate 5 at Las Pulgas Rd, north of Oceanside, the Camp Pendleton Marines and local teams have been involved in the Las Pulgas Fire. This one–the largest of the San Diego fires–started well after most of the others, on Thursday afternoon. By Friday, it had spread fast, covering 8,000 acres, and it was only 5% contained. Many gates and roads on the base have been closed and some areas lack power or have been evacuated. Only essential personnel were allowed to report to work today. All base libraries were closed. The fire has almost doubled in size, but firefighters have it 40% contained.
Cocos Fire (San Marcos fire)
The Cocos (formerly called Washingtonia) fire at Village Dr. and Twin Oaks Rd. became the top priority on Thursday. People also refer to this one as “the San Marcos fire.” Firefighters considered Cocos unstable. Only 5% contained on Thursday, it was moving south and extended huge walls of flame down the hillsides. Helicopters and military aircraft dropped water and retardant on it, and extra crews were called in.
Nearly 10,000 students were in the middle of final exams when evacuation orders came out at the San Marcos campus of California State University. The school also had to cancel Commencement and other activities this week. Many reesidents were evacuated for days, not knowing whether or not they still had homes. On Friday, the fire continued to burn actively with relentless, strong Santa Ana winds.
“At times it looks like there’s fire in the sky with the wind whipping back and forth,” eyewitness Ryan Marble told the Los Angeles Times as he stood in a long gas station line for fuel to evacuate.
Cocos has now covered only 2,500 acres, thanks to good handling. Structural damage has occurred there, including destruction of 11 single-family homes and 25 other structures at the Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association. But firefighters reported that at midday today, Cocos is 70% contained.
The Bernardo Fire off Nighthawk Lane southwest of Rancho Bernardo was San Diego County’s first blaze in this series. It started on Tuesday, May 13, at around 11:00 am. A crew excavating trenches to test soil at a work site near Del Norte High School left one trench, thinking it was completed, and moved on to another one. Shortly, they discovered the first in flames and had to run after trying to extinguish them. About 20,000 people were evacuated. City and Rancho Santa Fe Fire Districts joined Cal Fire in subduing this one. By morning May 16 it had been reported at 1,600 acres, 95% contained and not expanding. Evacuation orders were lifted.
Poinsettia Fire (Carlsbad)
Wednesday, the biggest news was at the Poinsettia Fire. The Poinsettia Fire has been one of the most destructive of the San Diego fires. It started Wednesday morning, May 14, near the intersection of Poinsettia Lane and Alicante in the city of Carlsbad, a coastal suburb about 30 miles north of San Diego. This fire apears to have started in a truck and spread to nearby brush north of El Camino Real. After the fire crossed El Camino Real, 11,600 Carlsbad homes and businesses, two elementary schools, and a middle school received evacuation orders.
Carlsbad Fire and Cal Fire worked on it jointly, using fixed-wing air tanker support. It burned homes, shorted and downed power lines 50 feet overhead, and forced home evacuations and the closing of the Legoland amusement park. By the end of the day, the Poinsettia Fire had destroyed eight homes, an 18-unit condominium complex, and two commercial buildings. During the evening, this blaze reached a size of 400 acres, but by morning on Thursday it was reported that the fire was 60% contained. Too late for 10,000 people (10% of the population) who had evacuated Carlsbad.
Officials said Saturday that the Carlsbad-area blaze was 90% contained and had burned 600 acres. The wildfire destroyed an 18-unit condominium complex and four residences, and it appears to have caused one death. It also caused $22 million in damages, in an early estimate.
The City of Carlsbad has advised of the following damage and losses: eight single-family homes, an apartment complex, two commercial buildings, and one modular building.
Another wildfire, the Freeway Fire, also started at the Naval Weapons Station area of Camp Pendleton. It was reported on Wednesday evening. Cal Fire has helped the Marines get this 56-acre fire 100% contained.
The Highway Fire, near Bonsall and Fallbrook, started at 1 PM on Wednesday, May 14, near Interstate 15 and California State Route 76 in the Deer Springs area. Several schools and about 600 residents were evacuated. By 4 PM on Wednesday, it had burned hundred of acres and was only 5% contained. Overnight, firefighters made a lot of progress. By Thursday evening, all evacuation orders were lifted and the fire was 100% contained. It’s the first fire I’ve reported on where the estimates of burn area have actually gone downward twice with time.
Oceanside saw another San Diego fire called the River Fire on Wednesday. It started on North River Road and College Boulevard. Firefighters kept this blaze mostly confined to the riverbed with no evacuations or imminent threat to structures. It burned 100 acres and was estimated to be contained by late Thursday afternoon.
The Aurora/Lakeside Fire, at 17 acres, is 100% contained.