Firefighters battle raging San Diego wildfires

SAN DIEGO Fri May 16, 2014 1:31pm EDT

1 of 9. Fire crew put out smouldering embers from the Cocos Fire in San Marcos, California May 15, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Sam Hodgson

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SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Several thousand suburban San Diego residents forced to flee a wildfire threatening their towns were allowed to return home early on Friday as firefighters battled for a third day against a swarm of blazes burning in and around California's second-largest city.

By morning, fire crews managed to establish containment lines around 10 percent of the fiercest of the blazes, the so-called Cocos fire, which has charred more than 3,000 acres of tinder-dry brush since it erupted on Wednesday near the San Diego County communities of San Marcos and Escondido, fire officials said.

A U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman speaking for the region's fire command said crews had gained "a pretty good handle" on eight other blazes around San Diego County that had forced as many as 125,000 people from their homes during the week.

Evacuation orders were lifted early Friday for some 4,600 people living in two San Marcos-area neighborhoods but remained in effect for the bulk of homes threatened by the Cocos fire, county emergency management and fire officials said.

Late on Thursday, Escondido police said they had arrested two teens on suspicion of arson after locating the pair near a shopping mall. The two matched descriptions by witnesses of two people trying to set fires in the South Escondido area, police said.

Authorities elsewhere were also investigating how so many fires started about the same time and whether any were intentionally set.

"We all have suspicions, like the public does, when you have nine fires that started all over the county," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said.

At least one large home was burned to the ground in suburban San Marcos by the Cocos fire, and television images showed towering flames closing in on other homes as residents scrambled to collect belongings and evacuate.

In all, eight houses and an 18-unit apartment building were known to have been lost this week in various fires across San Diego County, authorities said.

One of the most damaging of those, the Bernardo fire in the coastal city of Carlsbad, was 90 percent contained by Friday morning, a day after evacuation orders for the town were lifted.

Crews checking hot spots found a badly burned body in a transient encampment there but officials could not immediately confirm the person was killed by the fire.

Elsewhere, three separate fires that broke out on the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine Base north of San Diego had charred more than 14,000 acres

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Dan Whitcomb, and Eric M. Johnson; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Alison Williams, Gunna Dickson and Ken Wills)

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