Wildfires menace southern California, thousands evacuated

Officials ask for public's help to determine what caused so many blazes to occur simultaneously

Firefighters made progress late Thursday against wildfires raging in Southern California as authorities solicited the public's help to determine what caused so many blazes to occur simultaneously.

The blazes kept thousands of residents and students away from their homes after San Diego County officials maintained evacuation advisories. Many returned to their homes by Thurday evening. 

Firefighters found a body in a transient camp in Carlsbad, according to officals. It appears to be the first fatality in fires throughout the San Diego region that have destroyed eight homes, an 18-unit apartment complex, two businesses and caused an estimated $20 million so far. 

Whipped by the wind, flames swept over the parched land close to homes and roads in nine fires across the county, with black smoke filling the sky as California entered the height of wildfire season in the midst of one of the state's worst droughts.

No major injuries were reported although a Camp Pendleton Fire Department firefighter received medical treatment for heat exhaustion while fighting a square-mile fire on the Marine base.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency to free up resources. A forecast for lighter winds and temperatures around 90 on Friday, followed by a bigger cool-down over the weekend is also expected to help firefighters who have been working in temperatures sometimes topping 100 degrees.

While drought conditions and unusually high temperatures made the area ripe for wildfires, there are suspicions that at least some of the blazes were set. Gore said arson is being looked at but so are many other possibilities, such as sparks from vehicles.

Fire and police investigators are working together to determine where and how the fires started. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore encouraged the public to contact and authorities with any information.

Calmer winds on Thursday afternoon allowed aircraft to make a heavy contribution to the firefighting efforts. Four air tankers and 22 military helicopters were being used, in addition to local agency helicopters.

Ten of the military helicopters were being used to battle a blaze that grew to almost 9 1/2 square miles on Camp Pendleton.

A blaze in San Marcos that erupted Wednesday prompted officials to issue evacuation notices for thousands of residents and students at a California State University campus.

Tuzo Jerger was one of thousands told to evacuate as a wildfire ripped across Carlsbad, a suburb north of San Diego. The 66-year-old real estate broker packed files, a surfboard, golf clubs, clothes and photos and sought solace at a friend's hilltop house in nearby San Marcos, only to see another fierce wildfire break out there and force thousands from their homes.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's going to come this way,'" Jerger told The Associated Press at a San Marcos restaurant where he sought relief in a slice of pizza.

The university campus, which has more than 9,000 students, said Thursday that its evacuation orders would remain through Friday and it had canceled commencement ceremonies.

"The fire was right above campus. I could see it reaching over part of the hill, this really dark smoke. It was almost like an explosion," Grant Rapoza, 19, told Reuters.

The San Marcos fire has burned 700 acres, the San Diego County emergency website said Thursday. "[The] fire is still very active and continues to move to the south," it said.

About 200 residents of San Marcos gathered at an evacuation center in a high school, many from a mobile home park for senior citizens.

Alma Whisenhut, 80, packed clothing and papers for about 20 minutes after police told her and her husband to leave the mobile home park. The couple saw fast-moving flames two ridges away as they left.

"It was scary because there was so much smoke," she said.

Another fire that broke out on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base north of San Diego had charred some 6,000 acres by Wednesday evening, prompting the evacuation of military housing and a naval weapons station. Ten aircraft crews are working to put out that fire, which has so far not damaged any structures.

The San Diego Unified School District and other districts canceled Thursday classes. An amusement park, a power generating station and schools were evacuated Wednesday.

Officials in the coastal city of Carlsbad said early Thursday that the fire there was about 50 percent contained and lifted some evacuation orders. Emergency shelters had been set up at schools and community centers.

At least 22 residences and two businesses were completely destroyed by the Carlsbad fire being battled by some 300 firefighters. Officials estimated that the fire has caused $18.5 million in damage.

The city's fire chief said the blazes were unprecedented in his 27-year firefighting career because they are so early in the year.

"This is May, this is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October," Chief Michael Davis said. "I haven't seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May."

Firefighters founds a badly burned body in a transient camp. According to Carlsbad city officials, the body was found Thursday while firefighters were checking hotspots on a fire that began a day earlier. The city says it had no information about person who died.

The nine wildfires have so far scorched more than 9,000 acres in total, though firefighters were aided by quieter winds and lower temperatures overnight. Harsher conditions bringing the possibility of new blazes were seen for Thursday.

San Diego Gas and Electric said that power outages hitting more than 2,300 customers could remain through Thursday evening.

Wire services

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