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A wildfire that sparked amid extreme fire weather conditions in San Diego's North County, destroying homes and forcing thousands of evacuations, is now 50 percent contained.
Cal Fire San Diego officials said Saturday morning that the so-called Lilac Fire -- which first sparked Thursday at around 11:15 a.m. off State Route 76 and the Interstate 15 interchange in Bonsall -- was holding at 4,100 acres. Firefighters made progress overnight, reaching a 5 percent increase in containment.
At last count, officials said the blaze had torched 182 structures and damaged and 23 others. As of Saturday evening, approximately 100 of the structures destroyed were reported to be residences, and there are still 1,500 structures threatened, per Cal Fire.
Full containment is expected to be reached on Dec. 21, meaning a long road ahead for fire crews who have been working tirelessly to prevent more homes from burning.
The fire was driven by strong Santa Ana winds and low humidity plaguing Southern California this week. The conditions created a recipe for extreme fire weather danger, sweeping Los Angeles County at the top of the week and, by mid-week, zoning in on San Diego County.
In all, the Southern California fire "siege" sparked six wildfires, all still actively burning. Combined, the fires scorched 175,000 acres in the region, prompting the evacuation of at least 212,000 residents statewide as the flames threatened 25,000 homes. On Friday, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said 8,700 firefighters were on the lines.
Cal Fire said more favorable weather conditions -- including a decrease in gusts -- helped crews make progress with containment lines Friday and overnight.
On Friday evening, some evacuees from Bonsall, Oceanside and Vista were allowed to return to their homes as officials lowered mandatory evacuation orders to warnings.
In the three-day firefight, dozens of homes have burned to the ground in the quiet, rural communities known for their farms and ranches. Animals have been killed.
The retirement community of Rancho Monserate Mobile Home Park at the center of where the fire first began was hard hit, with dozens of units destroyed. NBC 7’s news chopper captured haunting images of those mobile homes being scorched beyond recognition.
As the sun came up Friday, NBC 7 returned to the mobile home park, much of which had been reduced to ashes. Charred homes filled street after street; some of the frames still stood, but not much else. NBC 7 counted at least 40 homes destroyed in that area.
So far, three civilians have suffered burn injuries, while another was hospitalized due to smoke inhalation. Two of those victims suffered burns while trying to save elite training horses stabled at San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall.
Three firefighters have suffered injuries in the ongoing battle to knock out the Lilac Fire. One of those firefighters dislocated his shoulder, put it back in place and went back to work. Another firefighter was hurt Friday when a tree fell on him as he battled the blaze.
Cal Fire Capt. Kendal Bortisser said Friday that more than 1,000 personnel were committed to fighting the Lilac Fire. This included over 100 engines, seven air tankers, and 15 helicopters. In addition, two U.S. Marines helicopters and two U.S. Navy choppers were helping.
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore estimated at least 10,000 people had evacuated their homes due to the Lilac Fire. By Friday night, the number of evacuees still unable to return home was at 7,700.
Gore said deputies were patrolling evacuated neighborhoods to prevent looting or other crimes while homeowners were away.
As of Saturday morning, evacuation shelters included:
- Bostonia Park & Recreation Center in El Cajon (1049 Bostonia St.)
- East Valley Community Center in Escondido (2245 E. Valley Parkway)
- New Venture Christian Fellowship in Oceanside (4000 Mystra Dr.)
- Oceanside High School in Oceanside (reached capacity Thursday night) (1 Pirates Cove Way)
- Palomar College in San Marcos (1140 West Mission Rd.)
- The Forum at Carlsbad in Carlsbad (established as a temporary evacuation resource) (1923 Calle Barcelona)
- Stagecoach Community Park in Carlsbad (reached capacity Thursday night) (3420 Camino De Los Coches)
California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for San Diego County, freeing up federal resources as crews battle the blaze. The county has also declared a state of emergency.
Many schools in impacted areas were closed. San Diego Gas & Electric was monitoring power outages, posting updates on this online outage map. On Friday, county officials said approximately 20,000 people across the county were without power. By 11:30 p.m. Friday, county officials said the number of residents without power was at 9,400.
San Diego County is under a red flag warning issued by the National Weather Service (NWS), in effect through 8 p.m. Sunday. This warning means any fires that may develop will spread quickly under fire-prone conditions that include ongoing strong, gusty winds and low humidity. A high wind warning is in effect until 4 p.m. Sunday.
The wind is what led the Lilac Fire to grow by 500 acres in just 20 minutes Thursday, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Mohler said.
Winds decreased Friday, allowing for a slight uptick in humidity levels and helping firefighters gain some ground on the Lilac Fire.
But, the fire zone is not out of the woods just yet.
Steven Harris, a forecaster with NWS San Diego, posted a video on Twitter looking at the conditions San Diego could expect going into the weekend.
He said the region could see another “burst of Santa Ana winds Saturday night and Sunday when we could have another pretty bad day in terms of fire weather threat.”
Harris said Sunday’s forecast includes 25 to 40 mph gusts in the Lilac Fire zone, as well as northeast winds of 20 to 35 mph in San Diego’s passes and foothills and northeast winds of 15 to 25 mpg with up to 40 mph for the inland valleys and some coastal areas. The winds won’t be as strong as they were on Thursday, but Harris said the threat is there.
"We’ll still have very low relative humidity Sunday, so any fires that are active or start will be susceptible to growing extremely rapidly – especially Sunday," he explained.
By Monday, Harris said the winds will be much weaker and the fire weather threat will decrease to a "minor" level.
Mohler said there are a lot of open fire lines that have not been tested by erratic Santa Ana winds and, even though there is no smoke, the threat is not gone.
"We have what we call sleepers – hidden embers that can be increased by just a slight wind," Mohler said.
As of Saturday evening, Cal Fire said 1409 fire personnel remained on the lines of the Lilac Fire.