SAN MARCOS — Just a few months ago, Cal Fire and the majority of county fire departments were participating in an annual wildland fire training exercise.
The message resounding throughout the event at that time was that this was going to be a fire season the likes of which has not been seen before.
On May 13, the fire season began — abnormally early — fueled by extremely dry brush caused by severe drought conditions and Santa Ana winds.
Emergency calls went out that day of a fire spreading through 4S Ranch, pushing towards Rancho Santa Fe. And then another fire was reported in Carlsbad.
By the end of the day, there were at least seven wildfires burning throughout the county.
The wildfires caused thousands of evacuations to businesses and residents, road and school closures and destruction to homes and structures throughout the county, including killing one person in Carlsbad’s Poinsettia Fire.
Full containment of the remaining fires is expected by Thursday, according to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Schuler.
And as all of the evacuation orders have been lifted and residents are beginning to return to their regular routines where they can, Schuler said at a press conference on Monday that this past week was a stark reminder about the potential for wildfires throughout the state.
“If you’ve not been affected by the wildfires yet, you could be, and we want you to be prepared,” he said.
But as Cal Fire crews remain on alert, seeking out any flare ups caused by remaining hot spots, residents from the San Marcos area turned out on Monday to thank all of the firefighters and emergency officials at a ceremony at Fire Station No. 4.
Parents and their children dropped off cards of thanks, even gift cards to Starbucks to show their appreciation for the firefighters’ efforts.
During the fires, Cal Fire relied on the mass mutual aid system, which not only allowed the use of military aircraft, but also the ability to conduct night-flying aircraft and the increased staffing of firefighters — all of these things, Schuler explained, was critical to their success.
Currently all fires remain under investigation, Schuler said.
San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn of District 3 said it was unfortunate that there were so many fires in one day. He’s continued to express his own suspicions that the causes of some of the fires were set intentionally.
“You can find where (the fires) started, but you’re going to have a hard time finding what was left of the igniter,” he said.
There is some video of the start of the Poinsettia Fire that shows a golf cart speeding off near where that fire began.
Horn attributes the better communications of emergency response crews to the fact that, “we’ve had a lot of practice, unfortunately. We had the 2003 fires; we had the 2007 fires.”
In Carlsbad, eight residences were destroyed, three sustained minor damage, one 18-unit apartment building was destroyed, one 18-unit apartment building received considerable damage, two commercial buildings destroyed and one modular building was destroyed.
All told the Poinsettia Fire burned 600 acres with the cost of damage being estimated in the millions of dollars.
Would these fires prompt any changes in the city’s protocols for fire safety?
“I’m sure it will,” Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall said, adding that they’re already being debriefed and talking about ideas that will offer greater protection to homes and wildlife areas.
He also said that most of the area that burned was under their master plan, where defensible space was part of the conditions of approval. Hall said that that might have to be reevaluated.
Capt. Mike Martinez of the Elfin Forest/Harmony Grove Fire Department and his unit started in the Bernardo Fire on Tuesday and were later dispatched to the Cocos Fire not long after where they were the only resource in the area at the time to protect a condominium unit, Martinez said.
“We were there probably for about an hour and a half, and we protected that community,” he added.
Martinez was around for the 2003 and 2007 wildfires.
“This was another round,” he said. But he explained that the two previous fires happened early in his career.
“This fire is where I’ve had the most education, the most experience. It was a lot of the same, but a different experience,” he added.
When asked if any of the firefighters began experiencing firefighter fatigue, Martinez, Brian Serocke and Ken Gardner, also of the Elfin Forest/Harmony Grove Fire Department answered in a thunderous unison, “No.”
“There’s a lot of adrenaline going there,” Martinez said, “and personally, I don’t feel exhausted until I’m not working.
“It’s just one of those things where you go, you have a job to do and you keep going, and when things calm down, then you can rest.”
“I 100 percent agree,” Gardner said. “It was only in our in-between assignments that we would feel fatigued.”
The Elfin Forest/Harmony Grove Fire Department was one of the agencies to participate in the wildland fire training exercises this year.
Martinez said it was valuable training, and experience that a lot of the newer guys can get.
“We train routinely, which showed the benefit,” Schuler said. “Today as you look outside, there’s no smoke in the sky.”
Lewis DesLauriers, a supervising investigator with the state Department of Insurance toured the areas of San Marcos where the Cocos Fire burned more than 1,900 acres. He said he saw four or five burned structures.
He and Soledad Gutierrez, enforcement supervisor of the Statewide Investigative Fraud Team urged residents that may have lost their homes to the fire to be wary of any unlicensed contractors out soliciting for work.
So far, Gutierrez said there’ve been no reports of scams in the fire-affected areas.
She said residents could go online to cslb.ca.gov to find backgrounds on any contractor’s license status. Gutierrez added that it’s a felony for contractors to work without a license in a declared disaster area.