(Updates number of fires; adds details about Camp Pendleton,
By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO May 16 Several thousand suburban San
Diego residents forced to flee a wildfire threatening their
community were allowed to return home on Friday as firefighters
gained ground against a swarm of blazes burning in and around
California's second-largest city.
The conflagrations, which marked an intense, early start to
California's wildfire season, have scorched more than 30 square
miles or nearly 20,000 acres of drought-parched brush this week
across San Diego County, leaving dozens of homes damaged or
A burned human corpse was found Thursday at a homeless
encampment overrun by flames in the coastal town of Carlsbad,
although officials said they had yet to confirm whether the
individual was killed by the fire.
Two teenagers were arrested on Thursday on suspicion of
setting two small fires that bystanders quickly extinguished.
But police said they had no immediate reason to link the youths
to any of nearly a dozen larger brush fires that raged
throughout the county this week.
By morning, fire crews had managed to carve containment
lines around 10 percent of the fiercest of the blazes, which has
blackened some 3,000 acres since erupting on Wednesday near the
town of San Marcos, north of San Diego, fire officials said.
The latest containment figure was double the 5 percent
reported on Thursday amidst an unseasonable mix of record
triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and hot, dry Santa Ana
winds blowing in from the desert. (See graphic: link.reuters.com/jaw78v)
"We haven't seen this in 25 years, where we're fighting
wind-driven fires in May," said Mike Mohler, a spokesman for the
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Firefighters benefited from a break in the weather, as Santa
Ana winds gave way to a cooler, moister and calmer flow of air
from the coast, officials said. A further cooling trend forecast
for the weekend was expected to help tame the blazes.
A U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman said fire crews had gained
"a pretty good handle" on most of the fires, which forced as
many as 125,000 people from their homes during the week.
One of the most damaging of those fires, in Carlsbad, was 85
percent contained on Friday. But it left property losses
estimated at up to $15 million, including eight houses gutted,
an 18-unit apartment building destroyed and an adjoining
apartment house heavily damaged, city officials said.
Three more houses were confirmed as destroyed in San Marcos,
where evacuation orders were lifted Friday for some 4,600 people
in two neighborhoods but remained in effect for the bulk of
homes threatened by that blaze, officials said.
Authorities were 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
... fires that started all over the county," San Diego County
Sheriff Bill Gore said.
A series of four fires at Camp Pendleton Marine Base north
of San Diego prompted evacuations of several outposts within the
installation and led commanders to send non-essential personnel
home on Friday.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernard