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'Cocos Fire' roars to life, threatens homes, businesses

San Marcos, Escondido residents flee towering flames

One of the numerous fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, triggering thousands of new evacuation orders.

The flare-up near the city of San Marcos occurred after a half-day lull in winds that firefighters had seized as an opportunity to make progress against flames that have scorched thousands of acres this week.

State fire Capt. Kendal Bortisser said the fire was running east along hillsides behind California State University, San Marcos.

Tucker Hohenstein, a Colliers International senior vice president who was driving through Escondido on his way to Carlsbad shortly after 3:30 p.m. Thursday, said the fire appeared to be threatening three business parks. These include the Escondido Research & Technology Center, which harbors Palomar Medical Center within its confines; the Harmony Grove Business Park; and the Wineridge Business Park.

"There are more than 200 companies in these business parks and that's a conservative estimate," Hohenstein said.

San Diego County Sheriff Cmdr. Mike Barnett said just before 5 p.m. that the flare-up prompted nearly 16,000 new evacuation notices in the San Marcos and Escondido areas. Sheriff Bill Gore said earlier that the notices served as a “reminder to everybody just how volatile this can be.” The new evacuations were in addition to more than 20,000 orders issued Wednesday.

As the afternoon progressed, the fire that started in San Marcos, named the Cocos Fire, had spread eastward toward Escondido. The prevailing easterly winds of the past couple of days had appeared to reverse direction in the early afternoon before becoming less predictable. Homes were consumed in flames near Country Club Drive in western Escondido. Evacuations had earlier been ordered for residents west of West Valley Parkway between Via Rancho Parkway and state Route 78.

The Cocos Fire, one of nine fires that had been burning around the county through the day, destroyed at least five homes by Thursday afternoon, from San Marcos to those in the eastern fringes of Escondido. Other homes were at the time very close to the fire lines.

Two firefighters discuss a strategy change while fighting a wildfire from the backyard of a home Thursday in San Marcos. Erratic winds around the region caused a Thursday afternoon flare-up of the Cocos Fire. Photo by The Associated Press

County Supervisor Bill Horn, whose district includes the unincorporated North County areas around Oceanside, Carlsbad, San Marcos and Fallbrook, said he was pleased with the attention given the Cocos Fire when it started on Wednesday.

"As far as I'm concerned, the response has been fantastic," Horn said shortly after noon on Thursday. "It happened quick over there, but it was later in the afternoon."

Given the split resources trying to simultaneously handle the several fires, Horn said all was done that could have been expected of fire crews and their coordinators.

"My feeling is, every one of these fires was initiated by a fuel source, and right on a major roadway," Horn said. "I don't have any evidence, but I think somebody was putting us to the test."

In an afternoon press conference, Sheriff Bill Gore confirmed that several of the fires had appeared to start along roadsides.

The fire was being driven by fuel and topography, said Division Chief Dave Allen of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“It's created its own weather pattern there as it sucks oxygen in,” he said at a news conference.

The 1,000-acre blaze was only 5 percent contained. The fire, which broke out Wednesday, forced the evacuation of the California State University campus where nearly 10,000 students were in the middle of final exams. Graduation ceremonies planned for this weekend were canceled.

Fires began erupting in the county Tuesday amid high heat, extremely low humidity and gusty Santa Ana winds. By Wednesday, nine fires were burning.

Asked about the possibility of arson, the sheriff said he wouldn't prejudge the investigations. He noted that sparks from vehicles can easily ignite brush in such dry conditions.

Emergency officials said a significant number of firefighting aircraft had become available, including four air tankers and 22 military helicopters, in addition to local agency helicopters.

Ten of the military helicopters were being used to battle a blaze that grew to 9.37 square miles on the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton.

Twelve other military helicopters were available to the county.

Since the fires began, at least 125,000 evacuation notices have been sent, officials said. Schools also have been shut down and the Legoland amusement park had to close Wednesday. It reopened Thursday.

Firefighters contended with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and gusty winds as they tried to contain flames fueled by brush and trees left brittle by drought.

There was extreme heat again Thursday, with temperatures ranging in the high 90s to 100 in the northwestern area of the county where the fires burned.

Officials said a Carlsbad-area blaze -- the Poinsettia Fire -- was 75 percent contained and had burned 400 acres. The city of Carlsbad on Wednesday night estimated there was damage to an 18-plex multifamily unit, a commercial unit at 6359 Paseo Del Lago and eight single family homes. Total damage was estimated at $18.5 million. The commercial unit was occupied by Sound-Eklin, a manufacturer of digital X-ray equipment and image management software for large and small veterinary animal practices.

Some evacuation orders were being lifted in Carlsbad, but a major power outage and hotspots were still a concern.

Tuzo Jerger was one of thousands told to evacuate because of the Carlsbad fire. The 66-year-old real estate broker packed files, a surfboard, golf clubs, clothes and photos and sought solace at a friend's hilltop house in nearby San Marcos, only to see a wildfire break out there and force thousands from their homes.

“I thought, 'Oh my God, it's going to come this way,”' Jerger said at a San Marcos restaurant where he found relief in a slice of pizza.

The blaze in Carlsbad was the most destructive of the fires so far. The largest fire in terms of area burned is the Tomahawk Fire on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, which by mid-afternoon Thursday was described as 15 percent contained but had not caused any structural damage. A new fire on the military installation was reported Thursday afternoon in the Las Pulgas area near the sewage plant, Building 43103, and was reported by the Marine Corps as having consumed 500 acres.

Many schools across the county were closed Thursday. Officials expected some wouldn't reopen until next week.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Diego County, which would free up special resources and funding for the firefight, and state fire officials were creating a central command center for the blazes.

Drought conditions have made fire danger extremely high throughout much of California. Officials have encouraged residents in fire-prone areas to prepare evacuation plans and clear brush from near their homes.

Carlsbad's fire chief said the blazes were unprecedented in his 27-year firefighting career because they are so early in the year.

“This is May. This is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October,” Chief Michael Davis said. “I haven't seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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