Update as of Thursday, 7 a.m.:
At least three homes have been destroyed and one damaged in an erratic fire burning in San Marcos, just east of the Poinsettia Fire in Carlsbad, that has forced the evacuation of California State University, San Marcos and 21,600 homes.
The Cocos Fire that started in Coronado Hills Wednesday afternoon, one of at least nine raging county-wide, continued its southward path Thursday morning. Despite planned air drops overnight by fire officials, the fire had spread to 700 acres by early Thursday morning, up from 450 acres the night before.
The flames spread down the hillside behind the CSUSM campus. Everyone there has been evacuated, and the school will remain closed through Saturday.
The university even decided to cancel its commencement ceremonies on Friday and Saturday because "the safety of our students, faculty, staff and families is our primary concern," according to CSUSM's website.
Evacuations are also in effect for these neighborhoods south of SR 78:
At 4:35 p.m., officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for all neighborhoods south of San Marcos Blvd.
Twin Oaks Valley Road has been closed to drivers, as was the eastbound State Route 78 off-ramp to Twin Oaks Valley Road.
Mission Hills High School at 1 Mission Court has been set up as an evacuation point by the city, and a secondary center will be at San Marcos Middle School, 650 West Mission Road.
The New Vision Christian Ministries International church opened its doors to evacuees. It's located at 2117 Industrial Court in Vista, and pets are welcome.
Airbnb, a website used to find lodging rentals, organized a site where people can open up their homes for free to those in need.
Kaiser Permanente San Diego announced it will close its San Marcos location on Thursday due to the fire. If it gets under control, the facility will reopen Thursday afternoon.
Heavy black smoke was covering the city of San Marcos as sheriff's deputies and residents were forced to wear clothing or masks over their mouths to avoid inhaling ash and smoke.
NBC 7 cameras caught one of the homes engulfed in flames at Coronado Hills Drive at Cycad Drive.
Winds caused the flames to jump from hill to hill, even crossing roads. Fire officials call the fire behavior erratic, with lots of hot spots sparking ahead of the main fire.
San Marcos homeowner Howard Burgeson first saw the smoke over the ridge about half an hour before they were evacuated.
He said he and his family kept grabbing items from his home until his car was filled up and he was exhausted.
"By the time we left, and my guess is an hour and a half, the fire was literally at the top of the ridge, and we could see that it was right there. It was time to go," Burgeson said.
They had to abandon the home they've lived in for 23 years -- a home they've evacuated a number of times before in other fires, but none so close.
"We don’t know what the morning’s going to bring. We don’t know what the night’s going to bring,” said Burgeson.
As the Burgesons and others fled the area, traffic was jammed in San Elijo Hills and other streets streaming from the burning hillside.
San Marcos couple Brian and Veronica said they were both at work when they heard about the flames climbing toward their home.
“I got a call from actually my president that said, ‘You got to get home, and it’s in your neighborhood,'” said Brian.
His first thought went to their cat Rusty locked inside. They were forced to park about a mile away, so they ran the rest of the way to their pet.
“You can replace homes and belongings, but you can’t replace animals and humans. We were fortunate enough to get some hard drives [too],” said Brian.
Nevertheless, Veronica was shocked to see the devastation facing her.
“It’s pretty sad because it’s our nature, and it’s gone,” she said.
Fire crews will continue through the night, but they are concerned for the area of Cycad Drive and Coronado Hills Drive, where they fear the flames will swing around and threaten a home tucked into the hillside.
Officials worry that the fire may reach Lake San Marcos by Thursday.
Kindness Among the Chaos
But amid the devastation, resident Heather Stinger shared one heartwarming story through the NBC 7 San Diego Facebook page.
She and her boyfriend live in the Campana complex near CSUSM -- one of the many areas under evacuation. However, they did not learn about the fire threat until 6 p.m.
Stinger and her boyfriend rushed to the area to try to reach their dog inside their home, but they were stopped more than a mile away.
"My boyfriend ran the rest of the way in flip flops/bare foot trying to get to our house to rescue our dog," Stinger wrote.
But when they reached the home, they found a note stuck to their door with a phone number and a message that their dog was OK.
A neighbor who Stinger had only seen in passing heard the dog barking as the evacuations were ordered.
He drove his truck next to their complex, stood on the top of it and climbed onto Stinger's balcony to rescue the dog hiding under the bed.
Stinger said when they went to pick up their pup, the man introduced himself and humbly stated that he was simply a dog lover and couldn't leave the pet behind with the flames coming so close.
"This is a truly amazing neighbor, who deserves recognition. I will never be able to express my gratitude for his amazing act of kindness," Stinger wrote.
Check back for details on this breaking news story.
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