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Wildfires burn almost 10,000 acres in California's San Diego County

Wildfires burn almost 10,000 acres in California's San Diego County
Cpl Orrin Farmer/U.S. Marines
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Thursday, May 15, 2014 - 3:00pm

A major firefighting offensive Thursday sought to douse wildfires that have so far charred 9,987 acres in California's San Diego County, with the worst being a nearly uncontrollable blaze in San Marcos.

Helicopters, military aircraft and extra crews, worked the fire which fire officials said was only 5% contained as it burned 800 acres Thursday morning in San Marcos, home to a California State University campus.

In broad daylight at noon, the fire blackened the skies in one San Marcos neighborhood and sent a "firenado" -- a column resembling a tornado with smoke and flames shooting from it -- rising and twisting into the air. The blaze forced the university to cancel this week's commencement and other activities, officials said.

In all, firefighters faced three dozen fires overnight, but as of mid-morning Thursday, that number had been reduced to eight, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Evacuation orders for several neighborhoods in San Marcos remained in place Thursday and at least 350 evacuees without alternate housing spent Wednesday night in shelters, officials said. Schools in many areas of the county were shut down because of the fire, including the San Diego Unified School District.

With sunrise Thursday, firefighters knew they were in for a long day.

"As quickly as the sun came up, so did the smoke," and the smoke meant fire, said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Schuler.

In addition to high temperatures, dry winds and low humidity, officials were concerned about firefighter fatigue after two days of battling the blazes.

In fact, Thursday will be the hottest day of the week, according to the National Weather Service, with forecast highs between 98 and 106.

The cause of the numerous wildfires remained under investigation Thursday, but San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore noted the tinderbox conditions of southern California. Grasses were so dry that setting a fire would take only a few hundred degrees, and a spark from a catalytic converter easily carries 2,500 to 3,000 degrees of heat, Gore said.

"The grass is nothing but kindling for these fires," he told reporters.

Working in firefighters' favor Thursday were calmer Santa Ana winds -- the dry, hot gusts originating from the desert.

"We're fortunate today not to have the winds we had," said San Marcos Fire Chief Brett Van Wey.

About 2,200 homes in San Diego County were without power, officials said.

As homeowners seek to repair their homes or find alternative housing, Sheriff Gore said authorities will be watching for vandalism and price gouging at motels and hardware stores. Prosecutors will file charges against anybody taking advantage of homeowners' tragedies, Gore said.

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said additional air tankers and firefighting helicopters will join the effort.

Firefighters deployed across the county, jumping on every hotspot that flared up.

The region is bone dry after months of little rainfall and temperatures are brutally hot, especially for May. Wildfire season typically peaks over the summer and into the fall.

"The common theme statewide this year is unprecedented number of fires and fire activity across the state, in many cases two to three months earlier than normal," Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told CNN's "New Day."

Getting the word out

Alert San Diego, a countywide notification system, sent out nearly 122,000 emergency telephone notifications on Wednesday as the wildfires sprang up.

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