POSTED: 04:34 a.m. HST, May 15, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 10:13 a.m. HST, May 15, 2014
SAN MARCOS, Calif. >> Gusty winds failed to return Thursday in San Diego County wildfire areas and authorities said it was a window of opportunity to make further gains against flames that have charred thousands of acres and burned homes.
Emergency officials said a significant number of firefighting aircraft had become available, including four air tankers and 22 military helicopters.
Ten of the military helicopters were being used to battle a blaze that grew to 9.37 square miles on the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. Despite its growth, the fire was 20 percent contained and was no longer considered a threat to communities.
Twelve other military helicopters were available to the county, where the biggest concern was a 1.25-square-mile blaze at the city of San Marcos. That fire was 5 percent contained and thousands of people remained evacuated, but officials told a news conference they were beginning to assess repopulating areas.
Fires began erupting Tuesday amid high heat, extremely low humidity and gusty Santa Ana winds. By Wednesday, nine fires were burning.
Asked about the possibility of arson, county Sheriff Bill Gore said he wouldn't prejudge the investigations. He noted that sparks from vehicles can easily ignite brush in such dry conditions.
The wildfires drove tens of thousands from their homes and shut down schools and amusement parks, including Legoland. The amusement park reopened Thursday.
Firefighters contended with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and gusty winds as they tried to contain flames fueled by brush and trees left brittle by drought.
Extremely high temperatures were occurring again Thursday, ranging in the high 90s to 100 in the northwestern area of the county where the fires burned. But the National Weather Service reported mostly calm conditions, a marked change from the strong gusts of the previous two days.
The heat was so intense that records continued to be broken in Southern California and horse racing was canceled at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, east of Los Angeles.
Officials said a Carlsbad-area blaze was 60 percent contained and had burned 400 acres. The wildfire destroyed an 18-unit condominium complex and four residences, Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall said.
Some evacuation orders were being lifted in Carlsbad, but a major power outage and hotspots were still a concern.
Efforts were focusing on San Marcos, a university city where hundreds of new evacuation orders were issued early Thursday. More than 20,000 evacuation notices were sent to residents Wednesday, and a California State University campus with nearly 10,000 students in the middle of final exams was shut down at least through Thursday. Graduation ceremonies were canceled.
San Diego County officials said that the blaze had destroyed three homes.
Tuzo Jerger was one of thousands told to evacuate because of the Carlsbad fire. The 66-year-old real estate broker packed files, a surfboard, golf clubs, clothes and photos and sought solace at a friend's hilltop house in nearby San Marcos, only to see a wildfire break out there and force thousands from their homes.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, it's going to come this way,'" Jerger said at a San Marcos restaurant where he found relief in a slice of pizza.
The blaze in the coastal city of Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego, was the most destructive of the fires so far.
Many schools across the county were closed Thursday. Officials expected some wouldn't reopen until next week.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Diego County, which would free up special resources and funding for the firefight, and state fire officials were creating a central command center for the blazes.
Drought conditions have made fire danger extremely high throughout much of California. Officials have encouraged residents in fire-prone areas to prepare evacuation plans and clear brush from near their homes.
Carlsbad's fire chief said the blazes were unprecedented in his 27-year firefighting career because they are so early in the year.
"This is May, this is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October," Chief Michael Davis said. "I haven't seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May."
Watson reported from San Diego.