Weaker winds aid efforts to stop Lilac Fire

BONSALL, Calif. — Fire crews took advantage of weaker winds Friday to prevent the Lilac Fire near Fallbrook from getting larger, authorities said at a midday news conference.

The fire, which began around 11:30 a.m. Thursday, scorched about 4,100 acres near Fallbrook, leaving 105 structures destroyed and 15 damaged. The fire slowed overnight and Friday thanks to diminishing winds.

By 7:30 p.m. Friday, the fire was 15 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

Despite a lack of flames and smoke in some areas affected by the fire, hotspots could still be fanned by Santa Ana winds forecast for the weekend, and authorities said evacuation orders will remain in place.

“Just because we’re not seeing smoke in the air doesn’t mean that we’ve turned the corner on this fire,” Chief Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, said early Friday afternoon.

Officials said that though winds were calmer Friday, they are forecast to strengthen again on Saturday and Sunday.  Fire crews are taking advantage of the lull to work on hot spots so that strong winds don’t spread embers and spark new fires.

More than 20,000 people living in the projected path of the blaze have been evacuated to centers in Escondido, San Marcos, Oceanside and El Cajon.

More than 1,000 firefighters and other personnel were working the fire, aided by 15 helicopters, including four military aircraft, Cal Fire spokesman Kendal Bortisser said.

Some 20,000 people were without power as a result of the fire.

The blaze erupted for unknown reasons just west of Interstate 15 and north of Lilac Road in Pala Mesa amid gusty, arid weather.

Authorities said the fire’s slower pace overnight could be attributed in large part to weakening winds and elevated humidity levels in the 15- to 25- percent range.

Calmer winds Friday left firefighters optimistic they could achieve some containment around the fire. But Santa Ana conditions are expected to persist through the weekend.

At least six injuries were reported Thursday, including a firefighter who dislocated a shoulder and one who was taken to a hospital for smoke inhalation. Three non-firefighters suffered burn wounds of unknown severity while another person suffered a case of smoke inhalation.

San Diego County was quick to proclaim a state of local emergency mid-afternoon, helping make the region eligible for state and federal resources.

Later in the afternoon, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state emergency proclamation for San Diego County and Friday morning President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration for the state due to the Lilac Fire and other large fires burning in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

“The president’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts,” according to the White House. “Specifically, FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize and provide, at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.”

The flames moved quickly after the fire broke out, growing to 50 acres as ground and airborne crews labored to keep the blaze from becoming an out- of- control conflagration like others raging this week across Southern California.

Authorities issued an initial mandatory evacuation order for all areas south of state Route 76, west of Interstate15, north of Gopher Canyon Road and east of Mission Road/Vista Way. Among the evacuated sites were Bonsall High School, Sullivan Middle School and all neighborhoods along West Lilac Road.

Other sites under mandatory evacuation orders are:

  •  the region south of Burma Road, east of Wilshire Road, north of North River Road and west of South Mission Avenue;
  •  the area south of Reche Road, west of Interstate 15, east of Green Canyon Road and South Mission Road, and north of state Route 76;
  •  the area south of Reche Road, north of Burma Road, east of the Camp Pendleton Eastern Fence Line and west of Green Canyon Road;
  •  the area south of North River Road, north of Bobier Drive, east of Melrose and N. Santa Fe and west of E. Vista Way; and
  •  the region south of Camp Pendleton Eastern Fence Line, north of North River Road, west of Wilshire Road and east of Douglas Drive.

Residents of other nearby communities were advised to seriously consider retreating to safer areas as a precaution.

Authorities set up evacuation centers for the displaced at Bostonia Recreation Center in El Cajon, Carlsbad Forum in Carlsbad, East Valley Community Center in Escondido and at Oceanside and Fallbrook high schools.

A shelter at the Stagecoach Community Park filled to capacity Thursday night and evacuees were asked to go instead to the East Valley Community Center. The Oceanside High School shelter also filled to capacity Friday morning and evacuees were asked to go instead to a newly opened shelter at Palomar College.

Evacuees were also being directed to the Pala Casino. People with horses and livestock were advised to take their animals to shelter at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. At least two dozen horses were killed when the fire raced through the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall, where nearly 500 horses are stabled.

The California Highway Patrol closed down state Route 76 from Gird Road to Old Highway 395 and blocked off the latter route between West Lilac Road and SR 76.

Aircraft from the city of San Diego and Kern County were being used to conduct overnight water drops, according to Cal Fire Deputy Chief Dave Nissen.

About 70 sheriff’s deputies were working in the fire-ravaged area, handling road closures and providing security for evacuated homes.

Residents near the fire should not wait for a mandatory evacuation order or a knock on the door from law enforcement, Sheriff William D. Gore said. They should rely on common sense and leave their homes if they feel they are in danger, he said.

Campuses in at least 11 school districts including in Bonsall, Carlsbad, Fallbrook, Julian, San Marcos and Vista were closed Friday. All classes and campus events in the Palomar Community College District were canceled.

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.