Blaze forces residents from more than 1,400 Back Gate homes

Blaze forces residents from more than 1,400 Back Gate homes

13 October 2008

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USA — A fast-moving fire on Camp Pendleton forced the evacuation of hundreds of military and civilian homes, schools and businesses in the San Luis Rey “back gate” area in northeastern Oceanside Monday afternoon.

Flames shooting up to 50 feet reached the fence that separates the West Coast’s largest Marine Corps’ base from adjacent upscale developments such as the 1,000-home Arrowood housing development just outside the gate.

The 1,500-acre blaze, dubbed the Juliet fire, was moving southwest on the base where it was being battled Monday evening by dozens of firefighters working from 70 engines from agencies throughout the county.

The fire broke out around 2:30 p.m. A short time later, helicopters and airplanes that were on standby because of a red flag fire warning were dropping water and fire retardant on the flames and threatened homes and buildings.

Minor damage was reported to an unspecified number of base structures, none of which were homes, fire officials said.

Fire officials ordered the evacuation of 1,440 homes immediately outside the base, most in Wilmont Ranch, the Pilgrim Creek Estates manufactured housing community and a wide swath of the South Morrow Hills neighborhood. An unspecified number of base houses also were evacuated.

There was no immediate word on expected containment.

Base commander Col. James Seaton said there was no live ammunition training taking place when the fire broke out.

The areas where the fire started is never used for ammunition training, Seaton said, adding the cause still hadn’t been determined.

“It was phenomenally quick,” Seaton said. “It came out of nowhere and it moved so fast.”

Evacuees from homes immediately adjacent were being directed to El Camino High School on Mission Avenue in Oceanside, where the American Red Cross was prepared to shelter hundreds of people.

There were no reports of injuries as of 7:45 p.m.

Base residents forced from their homes were instructed to report to the Stuart Mesa Lincoln Military Housing office.

In the upscale Arrowood housing development near the gate, resident Steven Wyles said he was confident his home would not catch fire.

“But if it comes over the hill, and with this wind, it can move fast,” he said. “It’s in the hands of God now.”

Arrowood resident Tammy McMinn said she felt “pretty safe.”

“But the wind, it can carry embers a long way and I hope the wind doesn’t start blowing more this way,” she said.

Arrowood resident Danielle Steele had a different view.

“Our houses are made of wood —- they’ll go up in flames and the wind is not helping.”

Officials were using the county’s reverse 911 system to alert residents in the evacuation areas.

Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood said Monday evening that he had been out at the Luiseno Park command center for most of the afternoon and was pleased with the strong state and local response to the blaze.

“We had plenty of resources out there and, of course, the air response made a huge difference,” Wood said, adding he had asked but had not been able to determine how the fire started. “Everyone was working very hard to make sure no structures went down.”

He said commanders at Camp Pendleton were concerned the winds could pick up late Monday night and push the fire toward more populated areas.

“Things look good now, but of course anything could happen during the night,” he said, adding the crews were continuing to fight the blaze. “I’ll be sleeping with one eye open,” he added. “I live out toward that direction.”

Carlsbad Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Davis said his agency and others had combined to line more than 20 fire engines along Oceanside’s border with the base in case the flames or hot embers carried by the wind came over its fences.

“What I’m hearing on the radio is they had structures on Camp Pendleton that Oceanside units could see were suffering significant threat,” Davis said. “From what I understand right now, we have not lost any structures off the base.”

On the base, a stable of horses kept in the back gate area was turned loose.

Barn coordinator Heather Gallaher said she doesn’t have enough trailers to move them.

“We have stray horses running down the middle of the road,” said Gallaher, who estimated she had enough equipment to move 50 of the 200 horses evacuated.

Gallaher said she and other barn workers were forced from the stables by military police during the evacuation.

“The MPs did force us to leave some horses in the stable,” she said. “The fire is basically right at the barn.”

Gallaher asked for help from people with horse trailers. She said people could enter the base through the main gate off of Interstate 5 and head toward the football field on the Mainside area.

San Diego County has been under a red flag fire warning since 6 a.m. this morning because of the hot weather and Santa Ana wind conditions.

Winds in the area around the fire were blowing at about 25 mph, with stronger gusts expected throughout the night.

At the evacuation center at El Camino High School, officials were setting up dozens of cots and getting prepared to provide food to those who needed it.

As of about 5:30, the shelter had about 40 people, many who were evacuated from Pilgrim Creek Estates on Weymoth Way.

Evacuee Sam Cannata said the flames came to within 300 feet from his home.

“I’ve got my jewelry in my pocket and that’s it,” he said. “I had no clue it could move that fast.”

Dottie Polly, 85, said she didn’t know there was fire near her home until seeing a report on television.

“I looked out, saw smoke and there it was,” Polly said.

Debbie Dala came to the school with her son, Nathan, and her yellow Labrador, Alex.

“And my husband’s on the way, so as far as I’m concerned that’s all I need,” Dala said.

In the Wilmont Ranch housing development, resident Joann Melemore was loading her SUV with her three children and the family dog.

“I come from New York,” she said. “I’m used to rain, not fires.”

Dozens of people who had gathered on Papagallo Drive near the back gate to watch the fire also were forced to flee when the wind shifted and sent flames in their direction.

Late Monday night, Oceanside school officials Reynolds, Libby Lake and Del Rio elementary schools.

A 1,600-acre range fire broke out at Camp Pendleton last week and was brought under control 24 hours later with no injuries, loss of life, significant damage or evacuations. That blaze was battled by two “Superscooper” airplanes leased from the government of Quebec that can scoop ocean water in a sweeping pass and quickly drop it over active fire areas.

Last week’s fire evoked memories of the massive conflagrations that tore through the county in 2003 and last year, destroying thousands of homes, causing billion of dollars in damage and claiming 26 lives.

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