Western Wildfires

Cooler Air Helping Firefighters Beat Back California Wildfires

Image: California wildfires

Smoke from the fires in San Marcos and Escondido lays down at dawn due to subsiding winds near Elfin Forest Road, San Diego county, California. STUART PALLEY / EPA

Southern California firefighters battling destructive wildfires across San Diego County continued to win their fight against the flames on Sunday because of cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels.

Only four of the eleven fires that had flared in the region from Tuesday to Saturday remained on Sunday, and each was more than 50 percent contained, according to California fire officials.

"Temperature-wise, relief has arrived for much of Southern California," said Weather Channel meteorologist Chrissy Warrilow. "Onshore winds are ushering cooler air into the region, which will bring temperatures back down to average along the coast.”

All evacuated orders and road closures were lifted Sunday after crews were able to largely contain most of the fires, according to NBC San Diego. The blazes have swept through at least 27,000 acres north of San Diego, causing $22.5 million in damages.


Evacuation orders were lifted around Camp Pendleton late Saturday, where crews had made significant progress containing three fires that burned a total of 23,000 acres. Three fires were still burning near the base on Sunday, but two were nearing full containment, while only 55 percent of the third fire that had already swept through 15,000 acres was under control.

The so-called Cocos fire in San Marcos was 85 percent contained as of Sunday morning. It had swept through 2,520 acres, officials said.


Earlier Saturday, officials said the blaze in Carlsbad — one of the worst-affected areas — was fully contained.

While state officials said the first fire was caused by a spark from construction equipment, it could take months to get to the bottom of what caused the most damaging fires. Alberto Serrato, 57, pleaded not guilty Friday to an arson charge in connection with one of the smaller fires, but authorities say they don't believe he started it, but rather that he just added brush to it.

Two other people were arrested in the Escondido area on suspicion of attempted arson. Police said they set off two small fires, which were extinguished within minutes.

Isaiah Silva, 19, was held on $50,000 bail. Details of the second person were withheld because he or she is 17 years old and a juvenile.


What's to come?

For those battling the blazes, the weekend's relief was mixed with anxiety over a relentless and unseasonable start to the wildfire season.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to more than 1,500 fires this year, compared with about 800 during an average year. The state firefighting agency went to peak staffing in the first week of April instead of its usual start in mid-May.

"Normally, I don't even put wildfire gear in my vehicle until the end of April. This year I never took it out," Kirk Kushen, battalion chief of the Kern County Fire Department, said at a base camp in Escondido. "We never really completed the 2013 fire season. It's been a continuation."

"We're getting ready for the worst," California Gov. Jerry Brown said on ABC's "This Week." Brown said the state has appropriated $600 million to battling blazes this wildfire season, but it may not be enough since California is on the “front-lines” of the consequences summoned by climate change.

Battalion Chief Kevin Taylor of the Paso Robles Fire Department in central California usually doesn't leave home until late July to assist other agencies during the fire season. He was dispatched to the Los Angeles area in January and led a crew that began work near San Diego on Thursday.

"There hasn't been a break," said Taylor, as he ate lunch under a shaded tree amid orders to be ready to move on three minutes' notice. "It's almost a 12-month fire season."


Christina Boyle of NBC News, The Associated Press and The Weather Channel contributed to this report.