San Diego fires: 2 teens arrested; smoke spreads widely; man charged with arson (updated)

SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15:  A home is left as smoldering ruins by the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SAN MARCOS, CA - MAY 15: A home is left as smoldering ruins by the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. Fire agencies throughout the state are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be a dangerous year of wildfires in this third year of extreme drought in California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images

For updates on the fires burning in Southern California, click here for Saturday's story.

With at least five active wildfires raging across Southern California, police in Escondido say they have arrested two people for investigation of arson in connection with two small fires that were extinguished within minutes.

Ten major fires have destroyed at least eight houses, an 18-unit condominium complex and two businesses since Tuesday. The hardest-hit areas were in San Marcos and Carlsbad, a suburb of 110,000 people that lifted evacuation orders late Thursday.

Escondido police Lt. Neal Griffin says a 17-year-old youth and a 19-year-old man were arrested Thursday evening after receiving calls from residents who reported seeing them start two separate blazes near a mall.

Griffin says police aren't ruling anything out but haven't found any evidence linking the two to 10 major fires that have destroyed at least eight houses, an 18-unit condominium complex and two businesses since Tuesday. Another man pleaded not guilty to arson charges in a small Oceanside fire.

Man pleads not guilty to arson in California fire 

A 57-year-old man has been charged with setting one of 10 wildfires that swept the San Diego region this week.

Alberto Serrato pleaded not guilty Friday to arson in connection with a 105-acre fire in suburban Oceanside — one of the smaller fires. The fire started Wednesday and is fully contained.

Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney's office, says witnesses saw Serrato adding brush to the flames near homes but he was not seen starting the fire. The spokeswoman says he has not been connected to any other fire.

The spokeswoman says Serrato was arrested Thursday in Oceanside and faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.


12 percent of Camp Pendleton burned

Approximately 12 percent of Camp Pendleton has burned due to the three fires burning on the base, Lt. Ryan Finnegan tells KPCC. One of those fires started Wednesday, while the other two started Thursday.

"This is a very special event," Finnegan said. The last large fire the base faced was the De Luz Fire in October, he said, but that was only 2,500 acres compared to the more than 14,000 the current fires have burned. He said that this is the worst fire the base has faced in his three years on the base.

All non-essential personnel were told to go home around noon, Finnegan said, in addition to evacuations for seven areas of the base. Before the recent evacuations, 1,500 people had already been evacuated.

"The base right now is rather lower traffic than usual," Finnegan said.

Finnegan also said that the base's artillery is safe from the fires.

"Right now, none of those fires are in any of the areas where we either practice firing artillery or store the artillery ammunition," Finnegan said. "However, the place that we do store the artillery is underground bunkers, generally built to be protected from fire.

Rob Strauss with KPCC staff

Health advisories issued as smoke spreads widely

Winds are pushing smoke from the San Diego County wildfires across neighboring counties, and pollution authorities say air quality may reach unhealthy levels for people with sensitivities.

At the height of this week's wildfires, winds out of the northeast were blowing smoke offshore.

But the South Coast Air Quality District said winds were blowing from the south on Friday and smoke could affect all of Orange County, central, northwest and coastal areas of Los Angeles County, and the Lake Elsinore and Temecula Valley areas of Riverside County.

Michael Watkins with the National Weather Service and Sam Atwood with AQMD confirmed to KPCC that smoke seen in L.A. was coming from the San Diego County fires. 

Atwood said it's not that unusual for smoke too travel that far. He also said the return of onshore breezes today should help to disburse the smoke, but some of the smoke that has blown out to the ocean could come back in the coming days too.

AQMD advised people to avoid unnecessary outdoor activities in any area directly impacted by smoke.

— AP and Bianca Ramirez

Some evacuations lifted

Meanwhile, some evacuation orders were lifted early Friday in an area near the fiercest of several wildfires in San Diego County, as crews building containment lines around the blazes hoped cooler temperatures will help them make further progress.

County officials said residents of two neighborhoods of San Marcos were allowed to return home. A flare-up Thursday in the north San Diego suburb prompted more than 18,000 new evacuation notices as flames raced through tinder-dry brush on hillsides. That fire was 10 percent contained Friday morning.

Cocos Fire

Firefighters found a badly burned body Thursday in a transient camp in Carlsbad, and a Camp Pendleton Fire Department firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion.

To the north crews battled two fires at Camp Pendleton, including one that broke out Thursday and grew overnight from 600 acres to 8,000, base officials told KGTV. It was 10 percent contained. The second fire, sparked Wednesday on the eastern outskirts of the Marine base, scorched nearly 10 square miles of dry brush. That blaze was 15 percent contained.

Tomahawk Fire

Pulgas Fire

This week's unseasonably early wildfires have driven tens of thousands from their homes and shut down schools and amusement parks, including Legoland, which reopened Thursday. Flames have caused more than $20 million in damage.

In Escondido, just southeast of San Marcos, Al Said stood in front of his spared home on Friday and pointed out two burned neighboring houses. He chose not to evacuate and used a garden hose to help firefighters save his home.

"By the grace of God and the hard work of these firefighters, they came in and they saved my house right here," he told The Associated Press. "It was pretty touch and go. Just an awesome sight when you see that fire come through. It's just terrifying."

Firefighters who have worked in temperatures sometimes topping 100 degrees this week were expected to get relief on Friday. The forecast called for temperatures to peak around 90 and lighter winds. A bigger cool-down was forecast for the weekend.

It could take months to find the causes of the blazes concentrated in the northern San Diego and its northern suburbs, from the coast to areas 10 to 15 miles inland. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said arson will be among the many possibilities that investigators will look at.

Crews along with engines and aircraft were ready to spring into action when the first fire ignited Tuesday after being sent to the region in anticipation of a heat wave and gusty winds.

The positioning of crews was among several steps fire officials say they have been fine-tuning since 2003 when the San Diego area experienced one of the worst infernos in California's history. Communications between firefighting agencies has improved, residents are notified more quickly when to evacuate, and more aircraft are available to dump water on fast-moving flames.

San Diego County had some of the strongest Santa Ana winds Wednesday, with gusts reaching up to 50 mph, which may have set conditions for fires to be easily ignited, just as they were in 2003. The 2003 Cedar Fire scorched more than 437 square miles, nearly 3,000 buildings — including more than 2,000 homes — and killed 15 people before being contained.

The tragedy led to California creating one of the world's most robust firefighting efforts, which resulted in the smooth evacuation of thousands this week and crews able to save hundreds of homes from being consumed by the fast-moving wildfires, said Battalion Chief Nick Schuler of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Before another devastating wave of fires swept the San Diego region in 2007, the city and county introduced a system of automated calls to homes and businesses. Previously, evacuations were accomplished by going door to door or driving down the streets with loudspeakers.

Upgrades at dispatch centers have allowed firefighting agencies to share resources far more quickly by computer, a contrast to 2003 when agencies had to pick up the phone to move engines around, said David Allen, division chief for the state firefighting agency.

There is also a stronger relationship between the state firefighting agency and the military, which had 22 aircraft fighting the fires Thursday.

Those procedures are expected to be tested further as drought-plagued California heads into the summer months of what is expected to be one of its busiest firefighting seasons yet.

Poinsettia Fire


Bernardo Fire

Miguelito Fire

Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles contributed to this report. AP video journalist Haven Daley contributed from Escondido.

This story has been updated.