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Arson suspect charged in San Diego wildfires, most blazes dying down

First man charged for setting one of multiple fires that raced through 20,000 acres of San Diego brush land

Prosecutors have pressed charges in relation to a dozen fires that destroyed homes and raced through nearly 20,000 acres of northern and eastern San Diego County brush land.

Alberto Serrato, 57, pleaded not guilty Friday to an arson charge in connection with one of the smaller blazes in suburban Oceanside that started Wednesday.

Most of the initial fires have since been contained. But on Saturday, thousands of firefighters and fleets of water-dropping helicopters were deployed to battle fresh outbreaks of fire.

Meanwhile, investigators continue to seek the causes of the wildfires that burned at least eight homes and an 18-unit condominium complex. The fires emptied neighborhoods and spread ash and smoke to neighboring Orange County and as far north as Los Angeles County.

Serrato, authorities believe, added fuel to the fires, but he was not behind the initial cause of the blaze.

Tanya Sierra, a spokesperson for the San Diego County district attorney's office, said witnesses saw Serrato adding dead brush onto smoldering bushes, which flamed up. He has not been connected to any other fire, Sierra said.

"Unfortunately we don't have the guy that we really want," Oceanside police Lt. Sean Marshand said. 

Eight of the San Diego County blazes popped up between late morning and sundown on Wednesday, raising suspicions that some had been set.

Police in Escondido arrested two people, ages 17 and 19, for investigation of arson in connection with two small fires that were extinguished within minutes. But they found no evidence linking the suspects to the 10 biggest wildfires.

The Bernardo fire, the first of the North County blazes to break out, burned 1,548 acres and was 95 percent contained Friday night. Together, the wildfires about 30 miles north of San Diego have caused more than $20 million in damage.

At their peak, the fires prompted about 8,400 military personnel and their families to be sent home from Camp Pendleton Marine base between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Some evacuated residents returned to find that their houses had been destroyed.

Dave Roberts' home in Escondido was gutted and its roof collapsed, although about 20 goats and some poultry he kept survived.

"My whole life is here and I lost everything," Roberts told KGTV-TV.

He built the home 20 years ago by hand. But he and his wife, Sherri, said the fire wouldn’t beat them.

"Between my family and friends and relatives and everybody, I'll make it somehow,” he said.

The region had become a tinderbox in recent days because of conditions not normally seen until late summer— extremely dry weather, 50-mph Santa Ana winds and temperatures in the 90s. On Friday, though, slightly cooler weather and calming winds aided the 2,600 firefighters, and thousands of people began returning home.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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