Raging California Wildfires Turn Deadly; Probes Underway

People are urged to call police if they see suspicious activity.


May 16--Authorities in San Diego County issued hundreds of new mandatory evacuation orders Thursday afternoon as a wildfire in the San Marcos area grew to 1,200 acres and was spreading east toward Escondido.

Escondido residents in neighborhoods north and west of West Valley Parkway between Via Rancho Parkway and Highway 78 were ordered to leave their homes as two flanks of the Cocos wildfire raged along parched hillsides overlooking the city, officials said.

In Carlsbad, authorities Thursday evening said firefighters found a body, believed to be a transient, in the charred brush. But it was not clear whether the wildfire that raged in the area contributed to the victim's death, authorities said.

Earlier Thursday, as the Cocos fire burned on the other side of the hills in San Marcos, evacuation notices covering 13,000 homes and businesses were issued, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department said.

In all, nearly 16,000 new evacuation orders were issued Thursday afternoon in San Marcos and Escondido, according to authorities. The Cocos fire was 10% contained, officials said Thursday evening.

San Diego County Sheriff Commander Mike Barnett told reporters that the department has received numerous calls for help from residents who received the notices but decided to stay behind.

"When we ask you to evacuate," he said, "it's important you do so."

More than 2,600 firefighters from agencies across California were battling more than half a dozen wildfires raging in San Diego County that have burned at least 10,000 acres.

Fire crews on the ground struggled to save homes threatened by walls of flame amid searing temperatures, gusty winds and dangerously low relative humidity. Overhead, water-dropping helicopters and air tankers loaded with fire retardant made repeated air strikes on hot spots.

Firefighters scrambled Thursday as they responded to yet another blaze that forced authorities to shut down part of 805 Freeway in San Diego County.

The Tomahawk fire at Camp Pendleton scorched 6,000 acres while another fire off Interstate 5 at Las Pulgas Road grew to 500 acres.

In the San Marcos area along Country Club Drive, flames had engulfed several buildings in a woodsy area with narrow roads and unpaved driveways in front of ranch homes.

The air was smoky in patches and flakes of ash drifted toward the ground as firefighters battled the flames, which had reduced homes to charred skeletons.

Al Said stood on his backyard lawn holding a garden hose over the low cinder block back wall dividing his home from the fire.

Said, 58, wore a ball cap and no face mask. He said that he was about to leave when firefighters arrived.

"I would not have stayed had these guys not showed up," he said.

Neighbor TD Walton, dressed in an old-fashioned gas mask and khaki green, said he knew from the start he wasn't going anywhere.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, officials said an 18-unit apartment complex in Carlsbad and at least seven houses had been destroyed in the brush fires.

Arson and bomb investigators were looking into what caused the devastating San Diego County wildfires, several of which burned close to roads, officials confirmed Thursday.

Several people were interviewed at the scene of the Lakeside fire near Aurora Drive when it started just after 5 p.m. Wednesday, said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore.

Authorities have urged the public to call local law enforcement if they see any suspicious activity. Gore said "nothing is too small" to report.

Escondido police briefly detained a man Thursday afternoon but released him.

"It's worth it for people to fight their own fires," Gore said. "Just help out the cause."

In Carlsbad, officials lifted evacuation orders for neighborhoods ravaged by the Poinsettia fire.

Bob and Sophie Payne's dream home, which they bought in 2006 after retiring, was destroyed by the 400-acre blaze.

"We just couldn't believe the fire grew so quick, so fast," Bob Payne said.

The Paynes lost all of their belongings, including precious family photographs of their parents, but were able to save their 6-year-old dog.

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