OCEANSIDE, CA – Fire crews stopped the Lilac’s destructive march on Friday, keeping to 4,100 acres a blaze that a day earlier had forced thousands to flee their homes, destroyed at least 105 structures and killed dozens of horses.
With the strong winds that initially drove the flames dying down overnight, fire crews were able to move from defense to offense, as aircraft dropped water on hot-spots while hand crews kept an eye out for potential flare-ups.
Despite the improved weather conditions, San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob cautioned residents to remain alert. Officials reported 15 percent containment of the fire Friday night, meaning for only that amount were they confident the flames wouldn’t jump the perimeter.
“A fire that starts in the back country can go anywhere at any time, particularly when those winds shift,” Jacob said. “We are not out of the woods yet.”
The fast-moving blaze ignited late Thursday morning. Officials estimated that around 900 people have shown up at fire shelters, while an estimated 10,000 people were evacuated at one point. The cause was unknown.
Two firefighters and four civilians were injured. It was unclear how many of the 105 structures were homes.
Flames burned through a quiet, semi-rural portion of San Diego County best known for ranches and orchards. Crews worked to keep the fire from burning west toward the larger Oceanside community or onto Camp Pendleton.
Trainers and staff at the facility cut loose some of the 450-plus horses so they could escape the flames. Dramatic video apparently recorded by a stable hand in the midst of the rescue efforts showed waves of horses running through the smoke as workers hurried to release them. Still, the California Horse Racing Board estimated 25 horses died.
Most of the survivors were trucked to the safety of the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
More than 1,000 fire personnel were dedicated to the Lilac Fire on Friday, along with more than 100 fire engines and 15 helicopters, Cal Fire spokesman Kendal Bortisser said.
“We continue to fight this fire from the air and the ground,” Bortisser said.
The Lilac fire put thousands of U.S. Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton on alert. Two military aviation strike teams were on-hand to help support firefighting efforts.
Of the 85 destroyed structures, officials were unsure how many were homes.
“There were quite a few mobile homes that were lost in the area,” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said. “That includes senior citizens.”
Friday, residents were taking stock of the damage.
Mary Klodell, 54, was riding her bike on the San Luis Rey trail when she saw smoke in the air – sending her racing home to pack essentials before leaving the area.
“We heard crackling and popping behind us,” she said. “I was panicked and looking for my keys.”
On Friday, Klodell returned to the neighborhood, walking the ruins of some homes and finding others still intact. A neighbor told her that only a small shift in the weather saved her residence.
“He told me the wind shifted right in time, or else my house would be done now,” she said. “That’s God protecting me.”
At the Stepp Stables at Camp Pendleton, Sandrine Linglet was overwhelmed and crying tears of joy. A day earlier, seeing smoke and fire in the air, Linglet, 46, had driven to the Oceanside Equestrian Center, where she kept four mustangs.
“I could barely see; it was black and red everywhere,” Linglet recalled.
On her first trip, Linglet, who had also been forced to evacuate her Oceanside home, was able to get two mustangs into a trailer. Ignoring warnings from firefighters, she returned Thursday night to rescue a third with the help of two Marines and brought the horse back to the Pendleton stable. They were unable to corral the fourth unbroken mustang.
“I was in tears and exhausted,” Linglet said. “I felt guilty. I couldn’t believe that I left her behind.”
Linglet spent the night at Stepp Stables — partly hunkering down with the three rescued mustangs and then sitting in her car listening to news reports.
“I cried the whole night but I was sure no matter what, I would not give up,” she said. “No matter what, no matter how, I would try to get my horse.”
Just before daylight, Linglet returned to the Oceanside Equestrian Center on Friday just a few miles from the stables at Camp Pendleton. She was shocked to see her fourth mustang, Margo, standing in a field. Hours later, the four were all safe at Camp Pendleton, which lent space for evacuated steeds.
Around 11 a.m. on Thursday, James Adams smelled smoke near his 3,300 square-foot home that overlooks the San Luis Rey river valley, about eight miles from Fallbrook. He helped his wife gather paintings and other valuables and got her, two dogs and a parrot into the car.
“I didn’t want her to be here,” the 68-year-old said. “I didn’t know how fast it would come.”
By 2 p.m., the fire had consumed the house two doors away, as the wind screamed over his home. He watched as the wind and flames shifted to the south, burning five homes to the ground at the end of this street. That night, there was no electricity, but he saw an orangey sky.
He called 911 twice, alerting firefighters to fire near him. Each time, helicopters doused the flames.
“I think the fire fighters did an amazing job,” he said.
Friday afternoon, Adams was able to think about how lucky he had been.
“I’ve been putting my library together for 40 years,” he said. “It’s one of my most personal possessions.”
By Erika I. Ritchie and Beatriz E. Valenzuela as published on The Orange County Register