Witch fire roars across northern San Diego County

Witch fire roarsacross northern San Diego County

 22 October 2007

published by  www.signonsandiego.com

San Diego, California, USA — The Witch fire, pushed by strong Santa Ana winds,roared west Monday morning across northern San Diego County, forcing anestimated quarter-million people to flee their homes.

It’s one of seven fires raging across north and East County, according to CalFire officials. By 8 a.m., the Witch fire alone had grown to 10,000 acres.

“It’s going to get worse. It’s probably the worst fire this county has everhad, well worse than the Cedar fire,” said Sheriff Bill Kolender.

If those winds continue to propel the flames westward, fire officials warned,the Pacific Ocean may be the only thing that can stop it.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts put the number of evacuees at 250,000 people.

“I think there’s a very good possibility it will reach the coast beforeit’s finished,” said Bill Metcalf, chief of the North County Fire ProtectionDistrict.

In all, the fires have killed one person and injured at least 20 others as ofmidday Monday, authorities said.

The county Medical Examiner’s Office identified the dead man as ThomasVarshock, 52, of Potrero. His body was found shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday.

Officials at UCSD Medical Center confirmed that it also was treatingVarshock’s 15-year-old son, who suffered burns on more than 50 percent of hisbody.

UCSD also is handling 12 other fire-related patients:

 four firefighters – three in critical condition and one in faircondition

 eight civilians – four in critical condition, four in fair conditionand one in good condition

The patients suffered burns and/or respiratory problems due to smokeinhalation.

Among the few pieces of good news was that the military was joining thefirefighting effort.

The Navy authorized two of its SH-60 Seahawk helicopters from North IslandNaval Air Station to join the seven firefighting helicopters already makingwater drops on the fire, Cal Fire officials said.

By mid-morning, flames from the Witch fire had destroyed dozens of homes inRancho Bernardo, jumped Interstate 15 and burned residences in the 4S Ranch areabefore taking aim at Rancho Santa Fe.

The fire was burning on the eastern shore and slope of Lake Hodges. Shiftingwinds first drove the fire westward, down the west slope of the lake, thenshifted once again, sending flames back towards Escondido.

By mid-morning, the blaze had destroyed hundreds of structures, forcingthousands of people from their homes as it followed the same path taken by thedisastrous Cedar fire four years earlier.

Seven firefighting helicopters were making water drops on the fire.Fixed-wing air tankers, grounded for a second straight day due to high winds andpoor visibility, may be able to join the fight later today.

Authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order for Rancho Santa Fe after thefire jumped I-15, burned past Lake Hodges at its northern and southern ends,then jumped Del Dios Highway near the Lake Hodges dam and continued west.

There have been structure losses in northern Poway, overlooking Lake Hodges.Homes also have been lost in Rancho Bernardo and Escondido, Cal Fire battalionchief Kelly Zombro said.

The south end of the fire is in the Barona area.

Residents from Ramona all the way to North County’s coastline were forced toflee. There were reports in Rancho Bernardo of people trapped in their homes orcars, said San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque.

With the situation changing from minute to minute, exact casualty figures,acreage burned and numbers of structures destroyed and damage were hard toobtain.

Firefighters were often frustrated by residents who ignored evacuation orders,forcing them to double back into areas ordered evacuated to make sure everyonewas safely out – and pulling them away from fighting the fire.

“If you are notified to go out of your home. . . do it. Do notwaste time,” Kolender said. “Your life is more important than your property.”

The two fires roared through much of Sunday. Strong, gusting winds reaching69 mph kept firefighters rushing from one fire to another to keep up with newblazes.

Qualcomm Stadium was opened as an evacuation center Monday morning andofficials opened the Del Mar Fairgrounds as an evacuation point.

At the stadium, city officials put out a call for volunteers, water, blanketsand food as workers prepared to receive as many as 100,000 evacuees.

The Witch fire merged overnight with another blaze that broke out when atransformer exploded near state Route 78 and Bandy Canyon Road, four miles eastof Wild Animal Park.

Flames 30 to 40 feet high tore through the area overnight and burned theirway into Rancho Bernardo by 3:30 a.m., Luque said. As dawn broke, authoritiesordered evacuations from Del Dios highway south to state Route 56 and from I-15west to Interstate 5.

Interstate 15 has been closed between state Routes 78 and 56. With highwaysalready clogged with evacuees and emergency vehicles, authorities askedresidents to avoid all non-essential trips, and to stay home from work ifpossible.

Authorities have ordered evacuations in Rancho Bernardo and Poway as thefires surged west.

San Diego Unified School District schools will be closed on Tuesday, andparents are welcome to pick up their children early on Monday, according to JackBrandais, a district spokesman.

In Poway, Palomar-Pomerado Hospital was being evacuated. Westview HighSchool, which had been opened as an evacuation center for area residents, wasforced to close by the approaching flames, and the evacuees there were sent toQualcomm.

Elsewhere, the Witch fire had pushed into the northeast section of Poway.

Residents are being notified by telephone through the reverse-911 system.

The city of Poway has declared a local emergency and activated the localEmergency Operations Center. Emergency information is available online at poway.org.

An emergency shelter has been established at the Poway Community Center at13094 Civic Center Drive. Large animals can be brought to the Poway ValleyRiders Association Arena, also known as the Poway Rodeo Grounds, at the cornerof Tierra Bonita Road and Poway Valley Road.

At the Wild Animal Park, a spokesman said some animals were being movedovernight into the park’s hospital for their protection.

Just to the north of the park, six homes in southern Escondido have beendestroyed, two more damaged and still more remain threatened, said EscondidoFire Department spokeswoman Carol Rea.

By 3 a.m., new fires had popped up near Cal State University, San Marcos, inFallbrook, Descanso Valley and in the Cleveland National Forest near Eagle Peak.

MiraCosta College closed all three of its campuses in Oceanside and Encinitasin a bid to help lighten the traffic burden on local highways, said collegespokeswoman Bonnie Hall.

People aren’t the only creatures affected.

The Helen Woodward Animal Center, which has both an animal hospital and apopular pet boarding center, evacuated all its animals as well as staff andvolunteers.

Residents in the Discovery Hills area were notified to evacuate immediately,but that order was withdrawn a few hours later.

The blaze, dubbed the Coronado Hills fire, burned more than 200 acres andseveral structures, said officials in the county’s Office of Emergency Services.Evacuees were sent to Escondido High School.

Meanwhile, the Harris fire in East County had scorched another 14,000 acresand is still out of control, burning toward Honey Springs Road. No firmestimates were available, but a Cal Fire dispatcher said 1,500 homes wereconsidered threatened.

The Descanso fire which broke out near I-8 also burned about 200 acres,according to officials at 3 a.m.

As firefighters grappled to keep up with these blazes, another fire brokenear Eagle Peak. That blaze has charred about 60 acres and is burning in aremote area in the forest.

Residents of the Barona Indian reservation have been advised to leave if theywish, though it’s not a mandatory evacuation, said Sheilla Alvarez, aspokeswoman for the tribe.

Flames have not reached the reservation north of Lakeside, but are nearby inthe San Diego Country Estates, and are threatening a nearby property wheretribal officials are building new homes.

The casino remains open, though officials have shut down Wildcat Canyon Roadheading north into the casino. Some employees were able to make it to work forthe morning shift, Alvarez said.

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