A Santa Ana wind-driven wildfire burned about 97 acres of land east of Ramona and forced dozens of residents to evacuate as firefighters attempted to stop the blaze burning at a "critical" rate on Friday.
Smoke was reported south of State Route 78 and Old Julian Highway at about 9:20 a.m. The fire, called the Sawday fire by firefighters, had grown to 70 acres before 11 a.m.
Firefighters worked through the weekend to cut a containment line around the blaze. By Monday morning, the fire was 98 percent contained.
The fire erupted near the agency's Witch Creek fire station so crews were able to arrive on scene quickly, Cal Fire said. About 150 firefighters with 10 engines each carrying 500 gallons of water, a helicopter and a firefighting aircraft tackling the fire -- though the aircraft at one point had to be grounded due to strong Santa Ana winds.
By 1:30 p.m., firefighters had stopped the fire's forward rate of spread and had 15 % contained and Cal Fire San Diego Deputy Fire Chief Nick Schuler said firefighters remained "cautiously optimistic" that they had the fire under control.
The fire was 52% contained by the evening, evacuations orders and road closures were lifted, Cal Fire San Diego said.
"The conditions that we experienced today is exactly what we were anticipating and what LA County and other parts of counties north of us experienced yesterday. This was not a surprise," Schuler said.
Firefighters remained on scene to monitor any flare-ups.
At least one structure was destroyed in the Sawday Fire, Cal Fire San Diego said minutes after the fast-moving fire started off of Sawday Truck Trail.
San Diego County Sheriff's deputies went door-to-door to evacuate residents west of Littlepage Road and South of Old Julian Highway while the county alerted communities via a reverse 911 call. To ensure you get alerts, sign up at ReadySanDiego.org.
Nearly 170 people were evacuated from 60 homes and 8 businesses on:
- Sawday Truck Trail
- Littlepage Rd
- Littlepage Ln
- Old Julian Hwy
- Creek Hollow Dr
- Creek Hollow Rd
The Bellena Vista Farm, a horse ranch located off Old Julian Highway, said they were one of the businesses under evacuation at about 10 a.m. A person from the facility told NBC 7 they were "packing up."
"If you have an evacuation warning, be ready to leave in 15 minutes. If you have an evacuation order call, be ready to leave immediately," said San Diego County Communication Officer Alex Bell.
Ramona resident Cody Snyder told NBC 7 the moment he knew it was time to evacuate.
“As it came over the hills, you look out and there’s big flames over the mountain, and you’re like, ‘Oh crap. We gotta go, time to go,” Snyder said.
The Ramona Rodeo Grounds at 421 Aqua Lane were established as an evacuation point. The San Diego Red Cross was staging there to help residents, according to spokesperson Emily Cox.
The San Diego County Department of Animal Services would also be at the facility to help with animals.
Schools were not closed because of the fires but the San Diego County Office of Education confirmed all kids were being kept inside due to poor air quality.
“In the chaos havoc of fire sometimes you can’t stick to a plan, but something in place can make a difference,” said Christine Snyder, manager of Creek Hollow Ranch.
Eastbound State Route 78 were close from 3rd Street to Old Julian Highway for about an hour when the fire broke out but were reopened by 10:35 a.m.
Old Julian Highway was closed from Swan Road to SR-78 but was reopened by 5:30 p.m.
“It’s etched in your mind forever, and it’s very scary and nerve-wracking, but I got to tell you, panicking doesn’t help,” Christine Snyder said.
Cal Fire spokesperson Thomas Shoots said ground crews were cutting a containment line around the fire while firefighting helicopters and an aircraft dropped water and fire retardant on the blaze.
SkyRanger 7 spotted a firefighting helicopter circling the blaze and making repeated water drops. Residents told NBC 7 they saw the chopper pulling water from the Lake Southerland reservoir about 12 miles north of Ramona.
The fire started amid a Red Flag Warning for much of Southern California due to dangerous fire-fueling conditions. The cause was being investigated.
The Red Flag Warning went into effect at 5 a.m. Thursday and was scheduled until 5 p.m. Friday. During that time, the combination of gusty winds, hot temperatures and low humidity that make the perfect conditions for wildfires to spark and spread rapidly.
A high wind warning was also in effect until 2 p.m. due to Santa Ana winds in the mountains and valleys. Gusts could reach 65 miles per hour during that time.
A San Diego Gas & Electric camera captured a plume of smoke rising over the mountains Friday morning. The smoke column was flowing sideways, meaning gusts could fuel the fire's spread.
"This is mainly a wind-driven fire," National Weather Service Meteorologist Bruno Rodriguez. "Obviously there are some hilly areas there. Terrain is also complicated so that is probably going to be a factor as well. But, it’s really a wind-driven fire pushed by the wind."
Cal Fire confirmed that winds were a challenge for crews, at one point forcing them to pull fixed-wing aircraft from making water drops on the fire.
"When the winds are high enough, typically around 30mph, the wind itself will dissipate the retardant drop to a point that it no longer does the job that we need it to do. And because it is so dangerous to fly the aircraft in those conditions, those two factors influence the decision to put the fixed-wing air tankers back down," Sanchez said.
Easterly winds were blowing in the 50 mile-per-hour range and showed no signs of letting up until the evening, NBC 7 Meteorologist Sheena Parveen said.
The winds were pushing smoke as far west as Rancho Bernardo, according to Rodriguez.
"We’re pretty smoked in. You can definitely tell when you head outside," he said. "It’s definitely smoky all the way to Rancho Bernardo, those off-shore winds aren’t helping either – bringing that smoke all the way down into the valleys.”
Humidity in the area was below 9 percent. Both were possible contributing factors to a difficult firefight.
Fire agencies staffed up Thursday to prepare for the hazardous conditions. Cal Fire San Diego brought in an extra air tanker to the Ramona Air Base on Wednesday. The agency added an additional eight engines, four water tenders and a helicopter to help in any firefight that arises.
Fall is historically one of the most dangerous times of the year for wildfires in California. Seven of the state's 10-most destructive wildfires occurred in October -- many fueled by monster winds, including Santa Ana gusts.
No other information was available.
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