‘Unprecedented’ wildfires, fierce winds lead to ‘firenadoes’ in California

Posted at 5:15 AM, May 16, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-16 07:15:36-04
By Holly Yan, Gary Tuchman and Michael Martinez


SAN MARCOS, California (CNN) — The good news: Temperatures and winds across scorched areas of southern California are starting to subside.

The bad news: Unruly wildfires keep barreling from one community to another, destroying homes and spawning “firenadoes” — funnels of flames that look like tornadoes.

With 10,000 acres of land already devoured, thousands of homes are still in jeopardy as eight fires rage in the San Diego County area.

“It’s scariest at the moment, with the fire now like 100 yards from the homes,” San Marcos resident Kevin Giesey said. “I worry about the embers jumping into the grass next to the homes. It’s frightening.”

In just a few hours Thursday, the fires in San Marcos went from minor blazes to raging infernos, filling the sky with orange flames and solid black smoke.

Unseasonably fierce winds mixed with the flames to spawn firenadoes. The wildfire in San Marcos leaped hundreds of yards in just a matter of seconds.

“It’s a moving target, as far as estimating size,” San Marcos Fire Chief Brett Van Wey said late Thursday. “It’s only about 5% contained, though.”

Now, nearby cities such as Escondido are also at risk.

About 15,000 Escondido residents have been evacuated. The evacuation zone included a 12-story hospital, Palomar Medical Center West, but that facility wasn’t evacuated.

“It’s just logistically hard to transport that many patients in a short period of time,” Escondido Community Relations Manager Joyce Masterson said. “The hospital is along the foothills and about three miles away from the fire.”

That hospital announced on Twitter that its emergency room had closed to new patients because of flames.

The fire department was “in place to do everything possible to protect the hospital,” Masterson said.

Teens investigated for arson

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

On Thursday night, Escondido police said they have arrested two teenagers in connection with brushfires along Escondido Boulevard and Kit Carson Park.

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

Griffin said police do not have any indication that the teens, ages 17 and 19, are involved in the wildfires, but “obviously we will be exploring that possibility.”

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, a spate of new blazes popped up — each one separate from one another, each posing its own dangers.

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

Nor did bone dry conditions: 100% of California is experiencing exceptional, extreme or severe drought conditions. The wildfire area is in second most-dangerous category.

“The last three years have (been) the driest in California’s recorded history,” Gov. Jerry Brown said, citing climate change as “a factor” in the spate of blazes.

Fire season in Southern California typically starts late in the summer and extends into fall. But nowadays, as Jacob points out, “We have year-round fire risk.”

Chief Thom Porter from Cal Fire notes that there’s been no time to shut down over the past 12 months at least, adding: “We have never gone out of what you would call fire season.”

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

CNN’s Dan Simon, Greg Morrison, Dave Alsup, Greg Botelho, Greg Morrison, Ed Payne, Amanda Watts, AnneClaire Stapleton and Sonya Hamasaki contributed to this report.

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