Fast-moving Lilac Fire brings destruction to North County

Fast-moving Lilac Fire brings destruction to North County
Firefighters battle a house fire at the Rancho Monserate Country Club trailer park near Fallbrook on Dec. 7. Photo by Jeff Hall/Cal Fire

REGION — Bridgette Conboy said the magnitude of the past week didn’t hit her until yesterday when her 9-year-old grandson made it crystal clear.

Conboy is the longtime office manager at the Rancho Monserate Country Club. On Dec. 7, she and the hundreds of residents of the senior mobile home park fled the park amid swift-moving flames, Santa Ana winds and billowing black smoke.

They returned days later to ruins.

“I was good up until yesterday, when my grandson came to see me and he said, ‘Nani, I want the park to be back the way it was,’” Conboy said. “And I broke down. It’s tough, he’s used to seeing this place and how beautiful it was.

“This is a gorgeous park, and now it looks like a war zone,” Conboy said.

One of the 75 buildings destroyed by the Lilac Fire in the Rancho Monserate Country Club trailer park on Dec. 7. Photo by Aaron Burgin

Across 4,100 acres of bucolic countryside in Bonsall and Fallbrook, the scene is repeating itself, as thousands of residents return to their homes as firefighters have nearly extinguished the Lilac fire.

The swift-moving fire has claimed 157 structures, damaged 64 others, injured six people and killed dozens of horses, many of the animals unable to escape the blaze at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, forced school closures in a dozen districts and displaced thousands of residents due to mandatory evacuations.

Most of the destruction occurred during the blaze’s first 12 hours, a testament to the speed at which it developed.

“This progressed so much faster than the Rice fire did,” said North County Fire Protection District spokesman John Buchanan, referring to the 2007 fire that charred more than 9,400 acres just a few miles north in Fallbrook. “This fire did that damage in less than 24 hours, whereas the Rice fire did its destruction over a couple of days.”

Meanwhile, some residents are breathing sighs of relief. Others are coming home to tears, as they face the emotionally and financially taxing proposition of starting over.

‘It moved so fast’

Investigators haven’t determined what started the fire, but received the call around 11 a.m. on Dec. 7 of a brush fire starting in a basin just west of Interstate 15 and south of State Route 76 along Old Highway 395.

Fanned by strong Santa Ana wins and bone-dry conditions, the flames quickly raced west toward Bonsall proper. Rancho Monserate, on the east side of the street, was first in its path.

The park bore the brunt of the blaze’s ferocity, as flames hopscotched from home to home, igniting the highly flammable structures like matchsticks, faster than firefighters could move in to protect them.

Of the 157 structures destroyed, nearly half of them — 75 — were inside Rancho Monserate.

The fire then moved west along Lilac Road and spread north toward State Route 76, prompting officials to issue mandatory evacuations that spread as far west as Oceanside, as far south as unincorporated Vista and north into Fallbrook.

It created some heart-wrenching moments, including at San Luis Rey Downs, where trainers, grooms and staff opened paddocks and set horses free in a last-gasp effort to save the thoroughbreds from the swift-charging flames.

Nearly half of the 157 buildings destroyed by the Lilac Fire were homes in the Rancho Monserate Country Club trailer park, seen here on Dec. 10 during an aerial survey of damage. Photo by Jeff Hall/Cal Fire

The flames destroyed nearly a dozen barns at the 500-stall training facility, killed more than 40 horses and a prominent trainer suffered second- and third-degree burns to over half of her body as she tried to rescue six horses.

“It moved so fast,” Buchanan said. “We really hadn’t seen anything like it.”

With night quickly falling and gale force winds still fueling the blaze on Dec. 7, fire officials made a bleak prediction:

If the winds did not subside, the then-4,100-acre blaze could reach the Pacific Ocean.

Then night fell. The winds died. And the fire slowed dramatically.

Fire crews quickly regained the upper hand during the night hours and thwarted the fire’s growth, capping it at 4,100 acres.

“Firefighters took advantage of a break in the winds to change from a defensive to an offensive fight, and fully engaged to keep the fire spread to a minimal,” Cal Fire Capt. Jon Heggie said Dec. 13. “We were pretty windy one of the days after that, but fortunately our control lines were well-established and we had zero fire growth past that first operational period.”

Buchanan attributed the change in fortunes to several factors: first, the heavy presence of air support, as some 15 helicopters and seven water tankers doused the flames with water and fire retardant.

Second, Buchanan said, homeowners cooperated with evacuation efforts, which meant fire crews could focus on fighting the fires rather than rescuing homeowners. Third, because the fire was the only major incident in San Diego, agencies across the county could focus their full efforts on the blaze.

“We had 10 times as much fire equipment as we did on the Rice fire in 2007,” Buchanan said.

And finally, he said, all the agencies — at the fire’s peak 1,400 firefighters from across the state were engaged in the fight — worked cooperatively to get the job done.

Over the past few days, fire crews have increased the percentage of containment and decreased the mandatory evacuations. As of Dec. 14, the only area off limits to nonresidents was Rancho Monserate, where security guards check identification cards to ensure only residents are entering the park.

Students in all but the Bonsall school district have returned to school, with Bonsall opting to start the holiday break a week early.

Full containment is expected Dec. 21.

‘Rancho Strong’

On a warm Wednesday afternoon, Joanne Hovden sat inside of the clubhouse of Rancho Monserate, talking to an insurance adjuster. Signs outside the clubhouse warn residents of unlicensed contractors who are preying on fire victims.

Outside, her niece-in-law, Margie Siegrist, smoked a cigarette and surveyed the destruction just across the park’s main street. Spaces once occupied by modest mobile homes, golf carts and carports replaced by mangled metal and ash.

This is a tight-knit community, Siegrist said. They play golf together, they play Texas Hold ‘Em and bridge in the clubhouse, women enjoy a quilting class, some groups play tennis and others swim. There’s a party at least once a month, and in the summer, barbecues.

“It really is a big family here,” Siegrist said. “I think that’s why it’s so hard.”

One by one, people have returned to assess the devastation. Some have returned to find none, like Bob Hall, who has called the park home for eight years.

“I was very lucky,” Hall said.

Others, like Hovden, weren’t so fortunate. Siegrist said the neighbors called the family the same day to let them know her home was burning.

Conboy said the fire’s devastation is magnified by the fact that the victims here are seniors in the twilight of their lives.

“You gotta remember, these are seniors, and while you only have to be 55 to live here, the majority of my people are in their late 60s to their mid 80s,” Conboy said. “It’s hard. I’ve heard from some women who don’t really want to rebuild. They’re afraid. But I’m going, ‘No, you wanna live here. This is family.’”

Siegrist said her aunt has resolved to start over here. She said she personally believes the park will be better than ever when the debris is scraped away and rebuilding begins.

“Everything will be new,” she said.

Outside of the park, a white banner flies with words that Conboy said capture the spirit of the park as they embark on the cleanup efforts.

“We will rebuild and we will be better than ever,” Conboy said. “We are Rancho Strong, just like the sign says.”

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