USA — A barren strip of earth was all that stood between hundreds of homes and a fast-moving wildfire hungry for fuel.
The dirt barrier worked.
Officials say the 300-foot-wide fire break, along with aerial water drops and weakened Santa Ana winds, allowed firefighters on Monday to keep a leash on a wildfire that flirted with the backyards of Oceanside and Camp Pendleton homes.
And it averted the disaster the Juliet fire could have wrought on a wildfire-weary region.
As of 9 p.m. Tuesday, officials said the Juliet fire was 60 percent contained. It had burned 3,900 acres. Smoke from another fire on base near Las Pulgas Road briefly closed Interstate 5 and delayed rail service.
The sigh of relief that no one was hurt and no homes were lost in the Juliet fire came just two weeks before the anniversaries of two of the state’s largest wildfires —- both of which scorched North County.
Michael Botuinick, whose home abuts the large military base, said Tuesday morning that the response was remarkable.
“Our homes are still standing, and we can’t be more grateful,” he said.
The cause of the blaze is still under investigation, but the U.S. Marine Corps said training with guns or other incendiary items was not to blame.
Likewise, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. officials said their equipment was not behind the blaze. The utility’s downed power lines were blamed for sparking the deadly 2007 wildfires.
Thousands of coastal residents —- civilian and military families alike —- fled Monday as the Juliet fire raced up valleys and over hilltops on the southern edges of the massive base, fueled by dry brush and Santa Ana winds.
By daybreak Tuesday, the fire had left behind a smoldering moonscape and evidence that it had licked at the fences of houses both on and off the Marine Corps base. Most of the evacuees were told they could head home.
“We almost lost many, many homes yesterday,” Col. James B. Seaton, Camp Pendleton’s commanding officer, said Tuesday morning as he surveyed the blackened earth next to the back patios of base housing.
“Those homes were saved because of the concerted, valiant effort of the firefighters on the ground,” he said.
Seaton also credited county officials for providing newly rented water-dropping airplanes, which carry up to five times the water that helicopters can carry.
Firebreaks —- as wide as 300 feet —- where the base backs up to the city of Oceanside also helped, officials said.
Residents said a Pendleton crew widened the break just a few days ago —- after fire broke out in a different location on the base last week. Many residents said they thought the moat of brush-free land helped to keep the flames at bay.
Officials credited the efforts of more than 350 firefighters, some of whom stood between homes and the wall of flames that threatened them Monday night and Tuesday morning.
Also earning praise were the large yellow and red “superscooper” planes that dropped water and fire retardant onto the fires, “a blessing” in helping to keep the blaze from homes, Camp Pendleton Fire Department spokesman Bill Gick said Tuesday morning.
The fire comes at a time when the base has about 10,000 Marines and sailors deployed to Iraq and other locales. Seaton said efforts were being made to get word to them that their families were fine, that there were no injuries or homes lost.
“Their heads need to be in the fight, they need to be focused on what they are doing overseas,” Seaton said of the deployed troops. “It’s our job to do everything we can to let them focus on what they are doing overseas and let us take care of their families.”
Most of the evacuees were allowed back home Tuesday, including the residents of some 1,400 off-base homes in the shadow of Camp Pendleton.
Also headed home were most of the 2,000 military members and their families who were forced to clear out of their Camp Pendleton housing.
One development remained without electricity and under evacuation.
Officials said they did not know when some of the residents —- colonels, majors and the like —- and their families would be allowed back into the San Luis Rey housing area.
Rick Estrada, who lives in Oceanside’s Arrowood housing development near Pendleton, had a brush with the unpredictable Juliet fire. He and his family were inside their Cockatoo Court home Monday night when they got a tell-tale whiff of smoke.
A sudden change in wind direction sent a shower of burning embers into his neighborhood, jarring Estrada, who had been confident the danger had passed hours earlier.
“I looked out back and it (the fire) had jumped the fire break —- it had made it to the ridge over there,” Estrada said Tuesday, pointing behind his home. “It was just a ball of fire. So we got in the car and bailed.”
A nearby fire crew was able to fight the flare-up, pulling hoses through backyards on Cockatoo and Nanday courts and saving all the homes that were threatened.
To the east, the Juliet fire burned at least 50 acres off the base and, on Monday, prompted the evacuation of residents on Fallbrook’s Sleeping Indian Road.
The flames destroyed at least one greenhouse in that area, said Marc Peebles, spokesman for the multiagency team fighting the fire.
The region is not out of the woods yet. Countywide, the high fire-danger warning set to expire Tuesday was extended until 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Although winds were expected to weaken Wednesday, temperatures were set to increase and humidity to stay low, forecasters said.
The Juliet fire kept crews busy, but firefighters had to divert attention to the west Tuesday afternoon, when an unrelated brush fire forced the closure of the busy Interstate 5 freeway.
Heavy smoke forced California Highway Patrol to shut down a 20-mile stretch of the main artery between San Diego and Los Angeles. Fire crews had it contained within minutes.
Firefighters also spent Tuesday fighting flare-ups and struggling to get their arms around the rest of the fire.
Gick said they were grateful for the work they were able to squeeze out of the superscoopers before they were grounded for the night and diverted Tuesday morning to a blaze in the Campo area of east San Diego County.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the superscoopers would be called back into battle at Camp Pendleton —- or whether they would need to be.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t flare up again,” Seaton said.
Some of the hundreds of displaced military families found shelter Monday night in empty homes on base.
The private company that handles housing on the base leased 105 empty homes —- they are vacant as they await remodeling —- to some of the families.
Lance Cpl. Ryan Conroy and wife Brittany were among those who evacuated from the base’s Serra Mesa housing area, near the San Luis Rey gate, colloquially known as the base’s “back gate.”
The Oregon newlyweds said they were ordered out of their home Monday afternoon, only 15 minutes after they saw “black smoke covering the sky.”
“It was really weird,” Brittany Conroy said Tuesday morning, after the couple spent the night on a futon at her husband’s workplace.