As wildfires ripped through San Diego County amid hot, dry, red flag warning conditions, local fire crews, law enforcement, leaders and residents united in the fight against the fires.
Nine fires scorched more than 9,000 acres Wednesday, primarily in the North County. Flames erupted in Carlsbad, San Marcos, Camp Pendleton, Fallbrook and Oceanside, among the impacted communities, threatening homes and forcing residents to evacuate.
Many of those fires continued to burn Thursday.
Cocos Fire – San Marcos
Of those still burning, the Cocos Fire in San Marcos continued to pose problems and keep evacuations in place Thursday as it burned dangerously close to homes.
The blaze has scorched at least 1,200 acres so far, prompting mandatory evacuations for Cal State University San Marcos (CSUSM) and the areas of Harmony Grove, Questhaven, Elfin Forest and parts of neighboring unincorporated areas.
It continued consuming homes with "explosive growth" Thursday, according to fire officials.
One CSUSM student said she had just finished taking her final and was turning in her books Wednesday when she spotted smoke near the campus. Shortly after that, students were evacuated.
“A lot of the students were concerned about their finals,” she said.
The fire caused CSUSM to postpone commencement ceremonies for Thursday and Friday. The university said those ceremonies would take place on May 24 and May 25 instead.
The Cocos Fire continued to burn in Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove Thursday with little containment.
Officials said the Cocos Fire remained Cal Fire’s top priority, as it continued to threaten homes.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Schuler said crews were pushing to keep the fire out of Harmony Grove, “with an emphasis on structure protection, structure defense and perimeter control.”
“We have six airplanes on this fire now, with numerous helicopters. They were here at first light,” said Schuler. “We have the resources we need for this fire.”
“Overnight, we made some good progress,” said San Marcos Fire Department Chief Brett Van Wey.
An evacuation shelter was established at Mission Hills High School located at 1 Mission Hills Court.
“It’s a crisis. We have to shift from education to taking care of folks. So that’s what we’re going to do,” said Mission Hills High School principal Courtney Goode. “Tests can be made up and what not but lives are being heavily impacted right now so that needs to be our focus.”
Several road closures remained in place Thursday as crews continued to hone in on the blaze.
Residents in the Harmony Grove area have experienced destructive wildfires in the past.
On Oct. 21, 1996, the Harmony Grove Fire ravaged the area in southeast Carlsbad, destroying 54 homes.
In that incident, shifting winds drove the fire across the southeastern boundary of the city and into residential neighborhoods of La Costa. According to City of Carlsbad records, the fire left $11.8 billion worth of damage in its wake. Four firefighters and two residents were injured. One of those residents died from severe burns sustained as he tried to evacuate his home.
Poinsettia Fire -- Carlsbad (renamed the "San Diego Complex" fire)
In Carlsbad, the Poinsettia Fire – which sparked on El Camino Real and Poinsettia Lane – tore through 400 acres, destroying 22 homes in its path. This included a condo complex with 18 units and four single-family homes. The fire damage was estimated at $22.5 million and counting.
The county issued 15,000 evacuation notices to homes, cell phones and businesses threatened by the Poinsettia Fire. This includes residents west of El Fuerte Road, south of Palomar Airport Road, north of Aviara Parkway and west to the coast.
As smoke billowed through neighborhoods, a group of three Good Samaritans ran door-to-door trying to make sure residents got out safely.
“I grew up in this area. I knew I needed to do something to help the people living around here,” one man told NBC 7.
“I saw a woman in complete hysteria. We went into her home and got her daughter and dogs out. Her backyard was engulfed in flames,” said another Good Samaritan.
“My friend has two little brothers who live by the church and I just wanted to make sure they were safe – that everyone was safe,” added the third helper in the trio.
A Carlsbad couple forced to evacuate described the moments they saw plumes of smoke taking over their street. They knew they had to move quickly.
“I opened up the drapes and the smoke is coming down the hill. We packed a bag, family pictures, got our cat and got out,” said the husband.
“We lived through 2007 fires in Rancho Bernardo. I’m confident that they’ll get this. Hopefully no lives and homes will be lost,” said his wife. “We’re packing a bag. We can replace everything in the house. Hopefully everyone is okay.”
As of Thursday morning, the blaze was approximately 60 percent contained, with 300 firefighters remaining on the fire line. Many evacuees were allowed to return home, though some road closures remained in place. Officials asked residents to limit their driving as much as possible in order to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles.
Natalie Emons returned to her home, which was spared in the fire, but was awestruck by how much vegetation the fire had burned in her neighborhood.
“This is such a beautiful canyon and now it’s just – it’s so surreal. I could never imagine looking at this devastation. We were really, really lucky. Our neighborhood was very fortunate,” said Emons.
A man who lost his Carlsbad home in the wildfire said he was lucky to be alive and would soon rebuild, adding that all he could do, at this point, was move forward.
Meanwhile, the Carlsbad Police Department established a Tip Hotline for the Poinsettia Fire at (760) 602-7599. Anyone with information regarding the origin of the fire or suspicious activity or persons who may be involved with the starting of the fires were asked to call the tip line.
Highway Fire – Fallbrook and Bonsall
Fallbrook resident Sam Curreri was ordered to evacuate his home as crews battled the 500-acre “Highway Fire” off Interstate 15 and State Route 76, near Old Highway 395 and White Lilac. He grabbed his dog and left his home behind.
“You’ve got mementos in there, pictures, clothes. I may only walk out with what I’ve got here. I hope not, but it might be that way,” he told NBC 7.
As he drove away from his neighborhood, deputies in the area called out, “We’re all in this together.”
Another Fallbrook couple followed Curreri down the road. They were confident firefighters would get a handle on the Highway Fire.
“We have a lot of help here,” said one resident. “It doesn’t worry me.”
Later that night, Fallbrook resident Robert Hankins echoed that sentiment, saying that fire crews appeared to be winning the battle.
“They know what they’re doing. There’s a science to it now,” said Hankins.
Hankins said police officers had also stormed his neighborhood and were helping residents. Hankins said he saw an officer go into a home on the fire line and get an elderly evacuee’s medicines before that resident left the area.
As of Thursday, the Highway Fire had burned approximately 380 acres and continued to be a top priority for Cal Fire crews. By 6:30 p.m., Cal Fire confirmed it was 100 percent contained. No homes had been destroyed or damaged.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike White said the Highway Fire had spread rapidly on Wednesday and was at the mercy of Santa Ana winds. These winds caused what appeared to be a cluster of “fire tornadoes” or “fire whirls.” One of those whirls reached a height of 1,000 feet.
“Fire whirls are typically caused by rapid vertical movement of heated air and battling winds,” White explained.
Tomahawk Fire – Fallbrook Near Camp Pendleton
In the Camp Pendleton area, the Tomahawk Fire burned 6,000 acres and was 15 percent contained as of Thursday. This blaze started at Naval Weapons Station – Fallbrook and led to an evacuation order for nearly 900 residents on Camp Pendleton, including those living in the De Luz housing area where the fire damaged 40 power lines and caused ongoing outages. The fire flared up and crept into Fallbrook, promoting the county to evacuate a portion of Olive Hill Road.
No structures were destroyed. Officials said 10 aircraft crews would tackle the fire Thursday, and 12 additional crews were requested.
Riverbed Fire – Oceanside
The riverbed fire in Oceanside had burned about 100 acres as of 10 p.m. Wednesday. Though it was mainly contained to the riverbed, 40 to 50 homes were evacuated in the area. Residents were allowed to return home shortly thereafter.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Joe Ward said crews worked through Wednesday evening building a dozer line stop the fire from spreading further down the riverbed.
The task was challenging, Ward said, for a variety of reasons, including limited resources and rough terrain filled with trees that stood in the way. The bulldozer broke down halfway through the process,
making it all even more difficult.
Still, Ward said firefighters were able to gain control.
“Crews out here have been working hard, without any breaks, and with limited resources,” said Ward.
The battalion chief said more resources were requested to continue fighting this fire Thursday. Two or three homes were damaged in the blaze.
Support from County, Leaders
County officials said nearly 350 wildfire evacuees stayed at three shelters overnight, including 100 people at two shelters in Carlsbad and 241 at San Marcos shelter. In many cases, The Red Cross helped the displaced at evacuation centers and shelters.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer sent out a memo Wednesday to city employees thanking first responders and local agencies for their “unified effort to battle these fires.”
“We are all in this together,” wrote Faulconer. “And together we will persevere no matter what challenges Mother Nature throws our way.”
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said 120 deputies have been stationed in San Marcos alone to protect the vacated properties. He advised residents to follow the directions of firefighters and stay out of the area as long as requested.
“We are watching your neighborhoods,” Gore said.
In all, the San Diego wildfires have consumed or damaged more than a dozen structures and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Though the timing and proximity of the fires has fueled speculation that arson could be involved, officials said it would be premature to comment on a cause of the fires in the early stages of the investigation.
Officials noted that current weather conditions could cause even a small spark to ignite a massive brush fire.
For updates on these wildfires by the numbers, click here.