Lilac Fire destroys at least 20 homes in tightly-packed retirement community

FALLBROOK, Calif. -- A fast-moving wildfire tore across thousands of acres near Fallbrook Thursday, destroying at least 20 homes in a retirement community and threatening hundreds of others.

Aerial video Thursday afternoon showed dozens of mobile homes in the tightly-packed Rancho Monserate Country Club engulfed in fire or already reduced to smoldering rubble.

The wind-driven blaze erupted for unknown reasons about 11:25 a.m. just west of Interstate 15 and north of Lilac Road in Pala Mesa amid gusty, arid weather.

Within an hour, the burn area had grown to about 50 acres as ground and airborne crews labored to keep the blaze, dubbed the Lilac Fire, from becoming a disastrously out-of-control conflagration like others raging this week across Southern California.

By 2 p.m., the flames, driven by 35 mph winds, had spread over roughly 500 acres, were threatening an estimated 1,000 homes and had sent a thick pall of brown smoke to the southwest above the North County and out over the ocean, according to Cal Fire.

As of early evening, crews had gained no containment on the fire, which had grown to about 4,100 acres while being pushed by stiff Santa Ana winds "at a dangerous rate of spread," Cal Fire reported.

By Friday evening, Cal Fire announced the fire was 15 percent contained and had destroyed 105 structures.

John Knapp, a resident of the Rancho Monserate Country Club, recalled the moment he was asked to evacuate his home Thursday.

"I was thinking about making some eggs for breakfast but that didn't happen," Knapp said. "The Sheriff says, 'out now,' and looking at the flames and the smoke, he was right. It was moving so quickly and the wind was so fast that I didn't have time to take anything."

Knapp was forced to leave his home and belongings behind, not knowing if he would ever see them again.

"Sitting down the road yesterday, watching this burn for five or six hours and the amount of smoke that came, I thought every one of these things would be gone," Knapp said.

After hours of not knowing whether his house survived the destruction, he snuck into his neighborhood.

"The police kind of said you can't go in. But I found another way to get in here. Just not knowing whether you got to start from scratch or if everything's OK. I just had to know," Knapp said.

When he saw his house still standing, he was shocked.

"I couldn't believe it. I thought I saw it burning on TV last night," Knapp said.

Knapp said he feels very fortunate, but also feels heartbroken for his neighbors.

The cause of the blaze -- which broke out amid a National Weather Service "red flag" wildfire warning slated to expire Sunday night -- was not immediately clear.

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