'Unprecedented' wildfires in California; first arson charge filed

San Marcos, California (CNN) -- When Elisha Exon saw towers of smoke looming over her San Marcos, California, home, she knew it was time to go. The only problem: All the nearby places she'd normally take her family in an emergency were threatened by fire, too.

"You kind of feel like your only safety would be to hop town, completely," she told CNN's "New Day."

The stunning explosion of fires this week in San Diego County -- eight in all, five still burning -- stirred suspicions of arson and sent thousands of people fleeing from their homes beginning Tuesday.

On Friday, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced the the first arson charge filed in the spate of fires. A man was charged in connection with a small fire in the San Luis Rey riverbed area in Oceanside, she said.

At a press conference, the prosecutor identified the man as Alberto Serrato. He is accused of adding brush onto an existing fire, Dumanis said. "Citizens were there and observed this," and the two citizens notified police, who then arrested the man, she said.

No countywide estimates of damage were available Friday, county officials said.

Fire crews hoped milder winds, lower temperatures and higher humidity Friday would help them get an edge on the fires, which have burned across more than 31 of San Diego County's 4,206 square miles, according to authorities.

Mike Mohler, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he was "cautiously optimistic" the day would see major gains in bringing the blazes under control.

Firefighters, aided by civilian and military aircraft, had largely contained a few of the fires, but officials said that the 1,200-acre San Marcos/Cocos fire remained "very active" and that two other fires near Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton were largely uncontained.

The Las Pulgas fire plaguing the sprawling military base had grown to 8,000 acres and was 5% contained, the base said in a statement on Facebook. Some areas of the base had been ordered to evacuate.

Ash and smoke filled the air in many places, making breathing difficult.

So far, injuries have been few: Authorities found a charred body in Carlsbad, but it was unknown whether the person died because of the fire. A Camp Pendleton firefighter suffered heat exhaustion.

Meanwhile, Camp Pendleton reported a new, third wildfire just before noon Friday, and the blaze was burning 25 acres, prompting an evacuation in that area, the Marine Corps base said.

Homes, other buildings destroyed

With the fires still burning, damage estimates are hard to come by. But Carlsbad officials say blazes there destroyed at least eight homes, two commercial structures and an apartment building.

In all, 176,000 notices of evacuation were sent throughout San Diego County via cell phone calls, e-mails, text messages and landline calls to homes and businesses, county Supervisor Dianne Jacob said.

On Thursday night, 232 people stayed in four shelters, along with 79 dogs, cats and birds, Jacob said.

"Our fire season has begun," Jacob said. She pointed out how January predictions of this year possibly being the worst fire season have "come true."

In the area including San Marcos and the Cocos Fire, 56,000 notices were dispatched, county spokeswoman Sarah Gordon said. But only 11,000 people in that fire area remained evacuated Friday, Cal Fire Capt. Mike Mohler said. The remainder were allowed to return home, Gordon said.

In Escondido, more than 15,000 residents were told to evacuate. The evacuation zone included a 12-story hospital, Palomar Medical Center West, but authorities ultimately told workers there to shelter in place with patients.

Evacuation orders for some 10,000 people in Carlsbad had been lifted, as had similar orders for some of the 5,000 homes evacuated in San Marcos.

Still, thousands of homes across the county are still in jeopardy.

"I've been doing this for 20 years," San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn told CNN. "This is the worst I've seen."

Images from the fires were jarring.

The night sky glowed orange from towering flames that consumed homes. Whirling columns of flame -- dubbed "firenadoes" or "fire whirls" -- spun across the landscape, in one case nearly devouring a hilltop home.

Firenadoes are spinning columns of flame fed by fuel drawn into the air by naturally occurring vortices created by fire, CNN meteorologist Indra Petersons said. They can spit out winds as powerful as an EF-2 tornado, she said.

CNN's Gary Tuchman saw a wildfire in San Marcos leap hundreds of yards in just seconds.

In video shot by Jeb Durgan and Byron Bowman, a helicopter wheeled over homes, dumping fire retardant just yards from a burning canyon choked with flames. Smoke obscured the road the two were driving on.

"If you imagine standing next to a barbecue or a campfire and multiply that by a hundred, that's what it felt like for a few seconds," Bowman told "New Day."

The fire, he said, made a "roar like a lion."

Two are investigated for arson

While the causes of the wildfires remain unclear, arson has been a primary suspicion among residents.

Escondido police Thursday night arrested 19-year-old Isaiah Silva and a 17-year-old juvenile, both of Escondido, in connection with arson-related charges stemming from brush fires along Escondido Boulevard and Kit Carson Park, authorities said.

Community members observed the fire and put it out, Dumanis said.

The San Diego district attorney is reviewing the case against the two individuals; no charges had been filed as of Friday morning, said spokesman Steve Walker.

Neither Silva nor his attorney could be immediately reached for comment Friday.

Witnesses said two people "appeared to be involved in setting small fires," Escondido Police Lt. Neal Griffin said.

Police don't have reason yet to think the teens were involved in the other fires, but "obviously we will be exploring that possibility," Griffin said.

Remnants of homes

Although many residents have evacuated from their houses, some who have returned came home to just rubble.

"We walked up to this place, and it was like a bomb went off," Anya Bannasch told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" on Thursday. "I can't even explain to you how just horrific it was."

Bannasch lost her house, but the entire family -- including the dog -- survived.

"I pray for all the other families, too, out there that are going through this right now, because I know there's fires everywhere."

Evolution of a disaster

The wave of wildfires started Tuesday with the Bernardo Fire in San Diego County. The next day, new blazes popped up -- each one separate from the others, each posing its own dangers.

Scorching temperatures, including record daily highs of 97 degrees in San Diego and 104 in Escondido and El Cajon, certainly didn't help.

Nor did bone-dry conditions: All of California is experiencing exceptional, extreme or severe drought conditions. The wildfire area is in the second-most dangerous category.

Gov. Jerry Brown cited climate change as a factor in the fires, noting the last three years have been the driest in recorded history.

Fire season in Southern California typically starts late in the summer and extends into fall. But nowadays, "we have year-round fire risk," San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said.

There's been no time to shut down over the past 12 months, said Chief Thom Porter of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is also known as Cal Fire.

"We have never gone out of what you would call fire season," Porter said.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said that the amount of fire activity statewide so far this year has been "unprecedented."

Here's where some of the major California fires stood as of Friday morning, according to Cal Fire:

The Cocos Fire in San Marcos

        3,018 acres burned

        10% of the fire has been contained

        The fire is still very active, with evacuations in effect.

The Tomahawk Fire at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

        6,300 acres burned

        23% of the fire has been contained

        A Camp Pendleton firefighter was being treated Thursday for heat exhaustion.

Las Pulgas Fire at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

        8,000 acres burned

        5% of the fire has been contained

        Camp Las Pulgas and Camp Margarita were ordered to evacuate.

The Bernardo Fire in San Diego

        1,548 acres burned

        90% of the fire has been contained

        Authorities believe the blaze will be fully contained Friday. Evacuations were lifted.

The Poinsettia Fire in Carlsbad

        400 acres burned

        100% of the fire was contained Friday.

The Miguelito Fire in Santa Barbara County

        632 acres burned

        95% of the fire has been contained


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