North County residents continued returning to their homes Monday as firefighters have reached 90 percent containment on a wildfire that scorched 4,100 acres between Fallbrook and Oceanside.
Despite the progress, officials don’t expect to have the so-called Lilac Fire fully contained until Dec. 21, which would mark exactly two weeks since it erupted for unknown reasons just west of Interstate 15 and north of Lilac Road in Pala Mesa, amid gusty, arid Santa Ana winds.
The extended containment outlook is because hand crews must dig down to bare soil around the burn area, ensuring there is no fuel if hot spots do flare up, Cal Fire San Diego Capt. Kendal Bortisser explained.
All roads closed during the blaze were re-opened by about 4 p.m. Sunday and all evacuations orders were lifted earlier in the day, though two areas remained closed to everyone except residents: the Rancho Monserate Country Club mobile home park in Fallbrook, which suffered heavy losses, as well as an area between 5200 and 5800 Olive Hill Road in Fallbrook.
Several schools and school districts affected by the Lilac Fire remained closed Monday, including Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, Fallbrook Union High School District, Mountain Empire Unified School District, Spencer Valley School District, Valley Center Pauma Unified and St. Peter the Apostle Catholic school.
All other schools that closed Friday were back open Monday, county officials said.
Palomar College in San Marcos and its six education sites also re- opened Monday for normally scheduled classes and activities, though the main campus’ Dome will remain open as a Red Cross evacuation center, district officials said.
A second shelter at Bostonia Park and Recreation Center in El Cajon also remained open Monday.
The Lilac Fire destroyed 157 structures and damaged 64 more, but no deaths were reported. In total, 1,659 firefighters responded to the blaze, with the response peaking Sunday with 1,409 firefighters on scene, most of them digging out the containment line around the charred area and putting out hot spots.
The death toll for horses affected by the Lilac Fire rose to 46 Saturday, according to California Horse Racing Board officials.
The Santa Ana winds that drove the fire Thursday are no longer a threat, but temperatures will remain 15 to 20 degrees above average this week with low humidity levels, so the threat of more fires remains slightly elevated. A red flag wildfire warning from the National Weather Service expired at 8 p.m. Sunday.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Henry Herrera said many of the Cal Fire crews that battled the Lilac Fire will now be sent to Ventura County to help fight the Thomas Fire, which broke out last Monday, has scorched more than 230,000 acres and is only 15 percent contained.
Officials said the Thomas Fire is the fifth largest wildfire in state history, though the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County still holds the record with 273,246 acres burned. The 2007 Witch Fire and 1970 Laguna Fire, both in San Diego County, are also among the 10 largest in California history.
–City News Service
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