A man suspected of arson is now under arrest in connection with a wildfire that scorched 85 acres near Camp Pendleton earlier this week, police confirmed Friday.
The Oceanside Police Department (OPD) said Jose Antonio Torres, 35, faces arson charges in Tuesday’s fire. Several witnesses told investigators they saw a suspicious man running from the area of the fire up a hill near Camp Pendleton after the flames sparked.
That person was Torres, who was detained by Camp Pendleton officials from the Provost Marshalls Office (PMO) and the Naval Criminal Investigations Unit (NCIS). He was questioned by investigators about the fire and, after days of probing, is now suspected of intentionally setting the blaze. Torres told investigators he had set up booby traps in the area of the fire, but crews did not find any types of traps.
The OPD said Torres has a parole hold on his record out of Los Angeles for a previous assault charge. He's slated to appear in court on Monday.
The fire sparked Tuesday just after 1 p.m. on the south side of the base along the 800 block of Douglas Drive in an area that borders Oceanside and Camp Pendleton. Witnesses called 911 to report heavy, thick smoke in the area north of Oceanside Municipal Golf Course.
Update on Camp Pendleton fire. Helicopters now showing up. Video taken looking north from Old Grove Road in Oceanside. pic.twitter.com/YlotLeTnpS— Susan Schag (@susanschag) June 13, 2017
"I went out to my backyard, and it was all smoke, and then I went out about an hour later and saw flames," said Sara Blanchard, who lives in the area of the fire. "I was just thinking, 'Is it going to come over here?' I couldn't believe how close it was. I could see the flames out there."
Golfer Jay Miller told NBC 7 he saw a man running from the fire moments after it started.
"We were on hole seven, I believe, and we saw a guy cut through the golf course, and about 10 minutes later, we saw a little fire start up," Miller said. "And we saw him run up the hill and then all of a sudden; the whole hillside caught on fire. He was definitely right next to the fire when it started. We saw that."
When firefighters arrived, they discovered the blaze burning in dense brush up the slope behind the golf course. It was spreading fast due to the high 12 to 15 mph winds, OFD Battalion Chief Greg de Avila said.
Vegetation fire near golf course on Camp Pen is currently at 50 acres. No containment information at this time. pic.twitter.com/oS7Dalo7XI— Camp Pendleton 75 (@MCIWPendletonCA) June 13, 2017
It had already scorched two acres and was moving quickly.
OFD crews along with crews from the Carlsbad Fire Department moved in on the fire, trying to protect homes in the nearby Pilgrim Creek Estates community. Residents there were told to shelter in place.
Residents were told they could evacuate, voluntarily, and head to the community center while firefighters worked to contain the fire. No mandatory evacuations were ordered.
The OFD said there was a drone flying in the area, which slowed down air attack resources trying to attack the flames. The Oceanside Police Department issued an advisory for any drone operators to cease all activity in the area.
A short time later, with the drone out of the way, helicopters were able to make water drops on the fire, stopping it from spreading toward the Pilgrim Creek community. Crews on the ground worked to surround the wildfire as well; within three hours, firefighters had a handle on it.
Crews worked throughout the night to monitor hot spots and prevent flare-ups. Thursday, crews returned to conduct additional patrols of the area.
The OFD said one firefighter suffered a minor injury from a chainsaw while battling the fire. No civilians were hurt in the fire.
She was taken to Tri-City Medical Center. No other casualties were reported. The OFD said nine fire chiefs, 14 engines, one medic unit, one air attack supervisor and two helicopters were used in the firefighting mission.