Navy and Marine Corps firefighting helicopters at Gillespie Field. Courtesy Cal Fire

Firefighters labored for a fifth day Wednesday to subdue a wildfire that has blackened thousands of acres in rural eastern San Diego County, leveling several dozen homes and outbuildings and forcing widespread evacuations.

The Valley Fire erupted for unknown reasons early Saturday afternoon off Spirit Trail and Carveacre Road in Japatul Valley, southeast of Alpine, according to Cal Fire.

As of 9 a.m. Wednesday, the wind-driven inferno remained at an estimated 17,565 acres and was 11% contained, the state agency reported. The blaze has destroyed 20 “habitable structures” and 17 “minor structures” and resulted in two injuries, though it was not clear if the victims were firefighters or civilians.

Gusty winds stoked the flames burning within established fire lines during the night, but the Santa Ana conditions — strong, warm and dry air currents blowing from east to west — did not intensify as much as meteorologists predicted they might, Cal Fire reported. As a result, humidity levels around the blaze remained high, aiding the firefighting effort.

A National Weather Service “red flag” wildfire warning — a public alert about potential or ongoing critical combustion hazards — is slated to remain in effect through 8 Wednesday evening, though the agency advised that it might be lifted “a few hours early” due to improving atmospheric conditions.

Map shows fire and evacuation areas. Courtesy Cal Fire

Gusts recorded overnight reached 54 mph at Sill Hill, 49 mph in Alpine, 47 mph in Hellhole Canyon, and 44 mph in Buckman Springs and Boulder Creek, according to the weather service.

Cal Fire reported nearly 700 personnel assigned to the fire on Wednesday morning, supported by 93 engines, 14 military and civilian helicopters, and eight air tankers.

Among the imminently threatened local communities were the back- country towns of Carveacre, Lawson Valley, Wood Valley, Lyons Valley and Deer Horn Valley, as well as Sycuan Indian Reservation.

Evacuation orders were in effect for Carveacre, Corte Madera Ranch, Japatul Valley, Lawson Valley, Lyons Valley and WiseCarver. In Descanso and Pine Valley, residents were advised to prepare to clear out of their homes on short notice if the flames begin closing in on their neighborhoods.

Residents in Alpine, Barrett Junction, Dulzura, Potrero and Viejas were cautioned Tuesday afternoon to prepare for potential evacuations, but those warnings were canceled Wednesday morning.

Shelters for the displaced were available at two high schools — Steele Canyon in Spring Valley and El Capitan in Lakeside, the latter of which also was accepting pets, according to the San Diego Humane Society.

Lakeside Rodeo Arena was available to shelter horses, and residents in need of a safe place to board their pets or livestock until the wildfire is extinguished were advised to make use of one of two San Diego County Animal Services shelters, in Bonita and Spring Valley.

On Tuesday afternoon, San Diego Gas & Electric advised about 16,700 of its East County customers that public-safety power outages might become necessary due to the potential for weather-related utility combustion hazards. Overnight, SDG&E shut off electrical service to 49 addresses in Descanso. Following inspections of its transmission equipment in the community, the utility restored power to those locations late Wednesday morning.

Unplanned fire-related power outages, however, kept about 1,700 addresses in the vicinity of the blaze without electrical service early this afternoon, and possibly for several more days, according to SDG&E.

“Providing an exact estimate on when power might be restored is extremely difficult until crews gain full access to the area to assess damage and determine what repairs are necessary to ensure safe operation of the system,” the utility advised at midday.

Due to smoke drifting over much of the county due to the blaze, the San Diego County Pollution Control District advised that air-quality levels were unhealthy in parts of the region and advised people to limit outdoor activities until conditions improve.

The U.S. Forest Service closed Cleveland National Forest until further notice to keep the public out of harm’s way. In total, eight federal wildlife preserves were closed across California due to ongoing fire danger, including Angeles National Forest, San Bernardino National Forest, Los Padres National Forest, Inyo National Forest, Sequoia National Forest, Sierra National Forest and Stanislaus National Forest.

As of 9 a.m. Wednesday, SDG&E reported power outages affecting 2,258 customers in the fire area, including parts of Dulzura, Potrero, Campo, Jamul, North Jamul, Lyons Valley, Barrett Lake, Dehesa, Alpine, Rancho Palo Verde, Buckman Springs and Morena Village, western Descanso and Boulder Creek.

About 2,015 of those customers were expected to have power restored by 5 p.m. on Sept. 15, while the rest were expected to have power restored by 5 p.m. Friday, according to SDG&E’s outage map.

“Customers impacted by the Valley Fire could remain without power for several more days or longer,” the utility advised. “As soon as first responders grant access to the area, our crews will begin assessing damage, make needed repairs and restore service as quickly and safely as possible. Thank you for your patience.”

As the inferno spread, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for San Diego County, a move intended to free up federal relief funds.

Updated at 12:35 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020

— City News Service

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.