A wind-driven brush fire tore through Carlsbad Wednesday, charring more than 400 acres and damaging or destroying eight residences and two businesses, forcing evacuations of thousands of residents, students and even tourists at the Legoland amusement park.
The Poinsettia Fire was about 10 percent contained at its eastern edge as of 6:30 p.m., Carlsbad Fire Chief Michael Davis said, and 150 firefighters continued to battle it through the evening, hoping the winds work in their favor. Davis said they would focus on scorched ground to ensure embers didn’t spark up anew.
Thousands of people fled their homes and streets were closed, but the chief said as of the evening press briefing that officials would wait up to four more hours before determining which areas could be safely re-opened to motorists and residents. Still, some resources were being released, Davis said, so authorities could help fight the San Marcos fire and other blazes in the county.
The chief, along with San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn, questioned how so many fires could have started in such a tight time frame Wednesday. Firefighters were taxed as they confronted up to eight blazes at Camp Pendleton, near Fallbrook, and later in the day, near Lakeside.
“I just think there’s too much of a coincidence here,” Horn said.
Davis said Sheriffs department arson investigators are looking into the fire, focusing on an isolated but large area measuring about 50 feet square.
“Each fire will be looked at as a crime scene until it’s proven to be accidental,“ the chief said.
On Thursday, Davis said, local departments will look to consolidate their firefighting approach, viewing the various blazes “as a larger regional effort.” They expect aid from outside the region, a typical response in what authorities call “complex fires.”
The Poinsettia Fire broke out for unknown reasons shortly after 10:30 a.m. near Poinsettia Lane and Alicante Road, just east of El Camino Real. Winds quickly pushed the flames west toward neighborhoods and some high-tech businesses, with the first reports of homes burning coming about 12:30 p.m.
By late afternoon, the flames had spread over at least 100 acres, destroyed eight houses and at least two businesses, and heavily damaged an eight-unit apartment complex, officials said.
Neighborhoods along Aviara Parkway and Black Rail Road sustained most of the damage, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Schuler said.
As of 3 p.m., crews had stopped the spread of the blaze, though some areas were still actively burning, Schuler said. No injuries were reported.
The city issued 23,000 mandatory or recommended evacuation notices to about 15,000 households west of El Fuerte Road, south of Palomar Airport Road and north of Aviara Parkway. A temporary shelter for the displaced was set up at Westfield Plaza Camino Real mall, 2525 El Camino Real.
“If you have been asked to evacuate, please do so,” Cal Fire Capt. Mike Mohler said. “You may not see smoke immediately in your neighborhood. But … with a wind-driven fire, we have to look ahead of this at where it might go.”
More than 11,600 residences and businesses received “reverse 911” calls urging the occupants to leave, county officials said.
Mohler said firefighters were up against extreme conditions.
“The city of Carlsbad has done very well in clearing (brush around) those homes, but when you have a wind-driven fire, it makes it very difficult,” he said. “This is a very difficult firefight. This is an urban wildland firefight, so it is definitely more difficult than you would see in a more rural setting.”
Davis said in nearly 30 years of firefighting, he hadn’t seen such conditions in San Diego County in May, calling it “unbelievable.”
“I haven’t seen it this dry or this hot for so long in May … this is an extraordinary weather event,” the chief said.
Among sites evacuated were Aviara Oaks elementary and middle schools, and Poinsettia Elementary, according to Carlsbad Unified School District officials, who stated that students were not in danger.
Aviara Oaks students were taken to the Brighton Gardens Senior Center at El Camino Real and Aviara Parkway, while Poinsettia Elementary pupils were transported to Carrillo Elementary School at 2875 Poinsettia Lane in San Marcos.
The fire stayed away from McClellan-Palomar Airport, so flight operations were not significantly affected, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Aircraft were being directed around the smoke, he said.
Dove Library, Aviara Community Park and Alga Norte Community Park were closed, and Legoland California was evacuated as a safety precaution because of electrical power surges, officials said.
The blaze came amid a heat wave that was pushing temperatures well into the 90s along the coast. Winds, however, were not as strong as on Tuesday, when a wildfire burned nearly 1,600 acres between 4S Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe.
“We say all Southern California is in year-round fire season and this is unfortunately a perfect example,” Mohler said. “We have an offshore wind where some of our coastal communities have higher temperatures than our inland communities, so traditional Santa Anas and then the winds and our low humidity – it’s just unfortunately a recipe for a large fire, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.”
He noted that “we are still going to have the high temperatures into the triple digits with single-digit humidities, so we have a few days to look at … extreme weather.”
– City News Service contributed to this report.