San Diego

Caliente Fire Tears Through Wood Pallet Yard in Otay Mesa, Burns Nearly 500 Acres

A fire that scorched hundreds of acres of open space Thursday turned into a massive blaze at a pallet yard, kicking up large plumes of black smoke and threatening businesses and homes just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Information on evacuations, road closures, and community assistance can be found here.

More than 50 fire officials responded to the blaze that sparked south of Interstate 905 near San Ysidro High School at about 11:45 a.m.

By 1 p.m., the fire -- dubbed the "Caliente Fire" by authorities -- had ripped through 110 acres, according to San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Battalion Chief Steve Salas.

An hour later, the SDFD said the Caliente Fire had grown to 130 acres, with potential to reach 200 acres. Crews were tackling the flames by both ground and air drops.

[G] 'Caliente Fire' burns in Otay Mesa

By 3:30 p.m., fire officials confirmed the Caliente Fire had scorched 150 acres, with potential to rip through 400 acres. The fire department said four helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft, four strike teams, three brush rigs, a water tender and six engines were working together to contain the fire. 

Cal Fire resources on the fire included four fixed-wing planes, one helicopter, one brush rig, and six hand crews.

The Caliente Fire spread to Moreno Pallets, a pallet manufacturing and recycling center, located on Cactus Court in Otay Mesa.

The fire raced up a hillside west of Cactus Road and onto the properties of two businesses, Atlas Pallet and Moreno Pallets, at around 3:30 p.m. Several stacks of wooden pallets as tall as 15 feet were on fire and thousands more lay in the fire’s path.

Firefighters were attacking the flames in the pallet yard from the ground and were forced to retreat when propane tanks on the property began exploding. Hazmat crews were called to the property.

Semi-trucks on the lot were also seen engulfed in flames.

Firefighters using ladder engines used hoses to spray a line of trees separating the pallet yard from a parking lot full of vehicles in an attempt to keep the fire from spreading.

As firefighters gained control of the fire and the surrounding smoke cleared away, both Atlas Pallets and Moreno Pallets lost just about everything on their lots except for their business offices.

Thousands of pallets stacks were reduced to ash piles and service vehicles and trailers were burnt down to their frames. Despite dangerous conditions, firefighters were able to stop the flames from spreading past the pallet lots' property line.

Matt Jones, who runs a neighboring refrigerated food business, said the fire forced him to cancel more than 60 deliveries scheduled for Thursday. The loss cost him thousands, but his heart goes out to his neighbors who lost even more.

"Anytime we lose business or a business loses anything it's felt through the family, and that is what Otay Mesa is -- a family of mismatched businesses that do everything," Jones said.

The SDFD tweeted that the winds had "kicked up" during the firefight, but those gusts were expected to die down by 4 p.m. NBC 7 Meteorologist Dagmar Midcap said those winds were blowing north and northwest.

Southwestern College tweeted just after 4 p.m. the Higher Education Center at the Otay Mesa campus was evacuated and that classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.

As of 4:45 p.m., SDPD was conducting mandatory evacuations south of Interstate 905, west of Otay Center Drive, and east of Cactus Drive. Police said the majority of those evacuations impacted businesses in the area.

Just before 6:30 p.m., SDPD downgraded areas east of La Media Road to an evacuation warning. Within an hour all evacuations and road closures were lifted and the Cross Border Xpress terminal had reopened.

No structure losses were reported, and one firefighter was treated for minor injuries, according to SDFD.

(Red areas on the map below were under mandatory evacuation the yellow area had a warning in place.)

At one point, southbound traffic on La Media Road was closed, as was the Britannia Boulevard off-ramp from eastbound Interstate 905. Southbound traffic on Britannia and La Media from I-905 was also closed.

The closure of Britanna Boulevard, one of the main roads that connects southbound traffic from the freeway to the Cross Border Xpress (CBX) terminal -- the terminal serves as a port of entry for Tijuana Airport passengers entering and exiting the U.S and conects them to the airport via sky bridge -- forced some on the U.S. side of the terminal trying to make their flights to run with baggage in tow.

"We were like, 'Wow, what's happening?' We had no idea. We don't know anything around here and we were told everything was closed," one anxious flyer said. She, her family, and dozens of others had to walk several blocks to the CBX.

"I did a long walk. It's about a 30 to 45-minute walk," she said.

Road closures on the way to the Cross Border Xpress forced some flyers to walk miles to try and catch their flights. NBC 7's Erika Cervantes has the story.

CBX officials also closed northbound traffic from the airport to the terminal, forcing many to wait at the terminal for hours before they could cross into the U.S. That closure also lengthened the wait for people on the U.S. side waiting to see their loved ones.

Jesse Campos drove from Anaheim to get his cousin.

"I thought I would go to the next exit and to my surprise it was also blocked, so I had to make a U-turn and then make another U-turn and then just park and wait. There's really not much we can do, just park and wait," he said.

The SDFD said at around 5:30 that the blaze had scorched 335 acres and was 10-percent contained. About 20 minutes later, the department upped its estimate to 450 acres.

By around 7 p.m. the flames were contained within the pallet yard and spot fires burning in the adjacent brush had been extinguished.

About an hour later SDFD said the fire had reached 490 acres and that firefighters had reached 50-percent containment. Crews were mopping up the burn area and checking for hot spots. They are expected to remain on scene through Thursday night.

Just before 7:30 p.m., SDPD said that all evacuation orders and road closures in the area of the fire had been lifted, and said southbound traffic into the CBX had reopened.

Salas said winds and dry brush had contributed to the fire's quick growth. 

Meanwhile, over at San Ysidro High School, Manny Rubio, a spokesperson for the Sweetwater School District said the school was safe from the fire and there was no indication students would need to shelter in place or evacuate. 

The SDFD told school officials the school was not threatened; firefighters planned to use the campus for staging, Rubio said.

The Red Cross said they received reports of 60 to 70 displaced. A temporary shelter for evacuees was set up at San Ysidro High School at 5353 Airway Drive San Diego, CA 92154 until 9 p.m.

No other information was available.

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