North County, California, USA — The entire town of Ramona —- more than36,000 people —- and hundreds of residents in surrounding areas were forced toflee their homes Sunday night after a Santa Ana-whipped fire burned through5,000 acres on both sides of Highway 78, leaving blazing structures, poweroutages and dead animals in its wake.
The inferno, dubbed the Witch Creek fire by officials, was one of a dozen blazesscorching Southern California from Malibu to Mexico that prompted Gov. ArnoldSchwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in San Diego, Los Angeles,Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
In East County, the so-called Harris fire had charred 20,000 acres in Potrero,leaving one civilian dead and at least 14 people —- including four fighters—- hospitalized. Further north, fires were burning in Malibu, San FernandoValley, Fontana, Devore, Arrowhead and other areas, threatening homes andcharring thousands of acres.
The Ramona-area fire turned into a wall of flames nearly instantly after itstarted just before 1 p.m. near Witch Creek Road. Within hours, 40 to 50 mphwinds had whipped the blaze across 3,000 acres as it leapfrogged across Highway78 in several places, fire officials said. At least 200 firefighters wereworking the fire lines Sunday in an effort to protect structures and allowevacuations.
The cause of the fire was under investigation, fire officials said.
The flames spread into two flanks that descended on Ramona, said Battalion ChiefKelly Zombro, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Flames surged westward between the areas charred by the 2003 Cedar fire, the273,000-acre blaze that destroyed 2,400 homes and killed a firefighter and 14other people. Sunday’s flames, fed by gusts of up to 70 mph, were fueled bywinds so strong that firefighting aircraft could not safely fly, Zombro said.
Thousands warned by phone
As the fire spread, officials used the county’s Reverse 911 system —- which isused to call residents in an emergency —- to advise thousands of people toevacuate the areas of Ramona, Ramona Country Estates, Black Canyon, Witch Creekand other areas, sheriff’s Lt. Phil Brust said. There were more than 36,000residents in Ramona, according to the latest population figures compiled by theSan Diego Association of Governments.
By late Sunday, parts of the San Pasqual Valley was evacuated and Powayresidents were placed on alert.
Evacuation centers were set up at Escondido High School, 1535 North Broadway;and Steele Canyon High School, 12440 Campo Road in Spring Valley. Poor airquality prompted officials Sunday night to move an evacuation center at PowayHigh School to Mira Mesa High School.
The centers, set up by the American Red Cross, will remain open “as long asthere is a need,” spokeswoman Gayle Falkenthal said. Lodging, food, drinksand basic health services will be provided, she said.
An evacuation center set up at Escondido High School had more than 30 familiesby late evening, and authorities said they were anticipating up to 30 morefamilies to show up during the night.
Adam Rosa said he and his parents evacuated their apartment on the east edge ofRamona at 8:30 p.m.
“The fire was right on the other side of the mountain from us when we left,”he said. “Everything out there was all smoke and we couldn’t breathe. Whenwe were coming down the mountain we could see the mountain behind us.”
Motels begin filling
Other families forced to evacuate their homes began trickling into area motelsshortly after nightfall.
The front desk clerk at Motel 6 in Escondido said, for example, that bymid-evening four evacuating families had taken rooms at the 131-unit complex at900 Quince Street.
“We’re anticipating more as the evening goes on,” the clerk said,adding that several members of one family told her they had to make severalback-and-forth trips to rescue their animals because they only had one horsetrailer. “It’s pretty sad.”
All schools in the Ramona and Poway Unified school districts were ordered closedtoday, as was the Palomar Mountain Elementary School and the Dehesa CharterSchool in Escondido.
Meanwhile, evacuation points for large animals and livestock were set up at theLakeside rodeo grounds, at Highway 67 and Magnolia Avenue in Lakeside, and theDel Mar Fairgrounds said Tammy Glenn, public information officer for the county.
As the flames spread, local residents and state officials mounted an effort torescue some of the hundreds of horses that live in rural ranches in the area.
Desperate efforts to save horses
Earlier in the day, Ramona residents Haley Van Houten and Shelee Lyon moved fourhorses in separate trailers from the Sierra South Horseshoeing School on OldJulian Highway to a south Ramona ranch. They returned for another load of horsesbut were not allowed back in.
“I know they mean well, but they don’t have horses,” Van Houten saidof the officials blocking their path. Meanwhile, Lyon damaged the front tires onher vehicle while attempting to get past a tack strip set in the roadway byCalifornia Highway Patrol officers manning a road closure.
A second shelter for pets and smaller animals was established by the EscondidoHumane Society at Poway High School, authorities said. It was unclear Sundaynight whether the shelter was moved.
Authorities said anyone looking for general information on animal servicesshould call 211. For emergencies, they said people should call county animalservices at (619) 767-2675.
Power cut to protect firefighters
As of Sunday night, utility crews had also shut down power to more than 1,000customers in Ramona, Santa Ysabel, San Diego Country Estates, the La JollaReservation and Mesa Grande, San Diego Gas & Electric reported.
At least some of the outages were put in place so firefighters would not have towork around live powerlines, authorities said.
“It’s just to make it safe for firefighters and our folks,” said DonParent, spokesman for the utility company. “As soon as we check and makesure it’s safe, we’ll re-energize them.”
The county Air Pollution Control District alerted residents to highconcentrations of fine particulates from the smoke, resulting in potentiallypoor air quality in areas affected by fire. Residents should limit physicalactivity or stay indoors to avoid exposure to smoke-laden air, authorities said.
The weather is expected to bring little relief today, as winds will be “prettymuch the same,” gusting at 50 mph during morning hours, 75 mph during theafternoon and slowing only to 55 mph at night, National Weather Servicemeteorologist Noel Isla said.
Building high pressure is creating humidity levels of less than 10 percent, andwind could blow smoke and sand, creating additional hazards for large vehicles.
Winds should weaken by Wednesday and temperatures should begin cooling byThursday, the weather service reported.
Roads closed because of Ramona-area wildfire include:
– Highway 78 at Magnolia Avenue
– Highway 78 at Rancho Santa Teresa
– Highway 79 at Highway 78
– Old Julian Highway at Vista Ramona Road
– Highway 79 at Highway 76
—- Source: California Highway Patrol, as of 10:45 p.m.