Life on Hold for Thousands as Fires Engulf North County

Thousands have been forced to flee as wildfires rage throughout San Diego County

Wildfires still raged throughout San Diego County Thursday morning, leaving tens of thousands of residents unsure of when, and whether, they might be able to return home.

At least nine fires have ravaged more than 9,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing thousands to flee in communities throughout North County. Local officials say the blazes, which prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency, are the worst they've seen in years.

"I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years," San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn said. 

By Thursday, six separate fires remained, and crews turned their attention to containing what officials described as the "top priority" blaze: an 800-acre fire burning in San Marcos that has already destroyed at least three structures and forced 21,000 from their homes. That blaze, named the Cocos Fire, was just 5 percent contained Thursday morning.

In all, the concurrent fires had consumed or damaged more than a dozen structures and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Firefighters readied for another day of battling the blazes, as the National Weather Service warned of hot and dry conditions that could further stoke the flames.

"It’s one of those things where you see it on the news, you see it on TV and movies and it's weird to look at your own house and be like, 'It's no longer my home,'" said Adam Gilmore, whose family home in Carlsbad was gutted by the Poinsettia Fire. "That kind of brings this weird feeling. It's not really sadness. It's not really depression. It’s just this weird feeling that this is the end."

While some evacuation orders were lifted Thursday, life for many residents remained on hold. Officials urged people stay off the road in affected areas to make way for emergency vehicles. All schools in San Diego and many in more than 20 nearby cities are closed Thursday, forcing 130,000 children and teens to stay home. Cal State at San Marcos would remain closed Thursday, too. All three MiraCosta College campuses will be closed on Thursday, May 15. Final examinations on all sites were postponed.

All flights in and out of Palomar Airport are cancelled for Thursday including United Express. The FAA has issued a temporary flight restriction at Palomar Airport overnight.

In San Marcos, the erratic Cocos Fire destroyed at least three homes and forced the evacuation of Cal State and 21,000 homes, as flames spread down the hillside behind the campus. The school canceled this weekend's commencement ceremonies due to the blazes, too.

Complete List of School Closures | List of Areas Under Evacuation

That fire was the biggest immediate concern for firefighting crews late Wednesday, officials said, and they planned rare overnight air drops in an effort to best it. But despite those efforts, the fire continued on its southbound path, spreading to 700 acres.

Further west, the Poinsettia Fire was scorching a twisting path through Carlsbad and its canyons, after it destroyed four homes and two commercial buildings and damaged others. In all, 22 dwelling units were destroyed, Chief Mike Davis said Thursday.

Greg Skaska lived in the home for more than 30 years and said when he realized the fire was threatening the house, he had no time to grab any personal things.

“No time. We had to leave. But it’s OK. I'm alive," he said.

That fire was 60 percent contained by Thursday morning.

By far the region's largest fire, the Tomahawk Fire, scorched thousands of acres on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. That fast-moving brush fire prompted evacuations, but military aircraft were making inroads in battling it.

Hundreds also fled the Highway Fire as it scorched hundreds of acres in the Bonsall and Fallbrook area of North County.

Fallbrook resident Sam Curreri told NBC 7 he was worried about leaving his home behind. "You've got mementos in there, you've got pictures, you've got clothes. I may only walk out of here with what I've got on, right?" he said.

In Oceanside, dry brush and heavy vegetation were feeding another wildfire that first broke out in the San Luis Rey River riverbed Wednesday. Residents and an elementary school were urged to evacuated voluntarily, as Oceanside officers went door to door to dozens of homes.

And some of North County's most exclusive communities were threatened Wednesday by the Bernardo Fire, as it scorched more than 1,500 acres after first sparking Tuesday. Firefighting crews had made major progress fighting it Wednesday, though, and as of early Thursday it was 50 percent contained.
Santaluz resident Kara Hansen said the fire came "unbelievably" close to homes. She was getting her hair done when she got a phone call about the blaze, and after she got home, she managed to grab only the dogs and her family's passports before a police loudspeaker told her to evacuate.

"It’s time to get out of here," she realized, she said, after she saw thick, black smoke.

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