DROUGHT:

Wildfires come hard and fast to Southern Calif.

SAN DIEGO -- Parts of San Diego County resembled an inferno yesterday as nine fires roared along the edges of suburbs and through the countryside. In the afternoon, thick, black smoke spiraled into the air above San Marcos, 40 miles northeast of San Diego International Airport, while firefighters battled a spate of new flare-ups in the chaparral-covered hillsides below.

The fires have forced tens of thousands to evacuate, including personnel from the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

The county has been under a state of emergency since Wednesday, when Gov. Jerry Brown (D) opened the door to federal and out-of-state assistance. California fire crews supported by U.S. military personnel and aircraft have been working around the clock to contain the blazes, according to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) spokeswoman.

While reports from regional fire teams indicated that much of the fire activity had been contained as of this morning, they also sounded a more somber note: At least one fatality has been reported from the coastal town of Carlsbad, where some of the most extensive fire damage occurred earlier this week.

Many thousands of residents have begun to return home. But at a press conference yesterday, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore warned residents not to let their guard down.

"We're not out of the woods yet," he said. "We've still got the fires out there ... so be safe, be careful. We're still in extreme fire weather."

The 'devil winds' come early

California is in the grip of a historic drought with all regions of the state classified as either severe, extreme or exceptional by the U.S. Drought Monitor. With snowpack and reservoir levels perilously low and higher temperatures ahead, many worry that the recent burns may be just a taste of what the summer has in store.

"It's frightening," said Peter Meade, 57, looking out the window of his Carlsbad home at a wall of gray smoke blanketing the skyline near the Pacific Ocean. The weather this spring has been ripe for fires, with hot, dry weather, he said. That's atypical for the coastal region, where this time of year is usually dubbed "May gray" for its overcast skies.

"The fact that we've had weeks of 90-plus-degree temperatures at the end of April and into May is very, very unusual," he said.

Temperatures aren't the only thing to arrive ahead of schedule this year. Santa Ana winds from the west -- sometimes called "devil winds" for their heat and unpredictability -- were responsible for much of the fires' spread earlier this week. To see such winds in mid-May is highly unusual, said San Diego Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Diane Jacob, speaking alongside Gore yesterday.

"I've lived [in San Diego County] my entire life, and I've never experienced the kinds of winds we're having right now in May," she said.

The worst is over -- for now

Happily, as of early this morning, both temperatures and winds had begun to die down. The large Tomahawk fire near Camp Pendleton is no longer threatening structures, and six of the country's eight remaining fires have seen between 60 and 100 percent containment, according to CAL FIRE spokeswoman Alyssa Smith.

In Carlsbad, where only two days ago Meade and his family could see five fires from their driveway, evacuation orders have been lifted and public buildings are reopening. Firefighters in the area have downscaled their operations from containment to quelling spot fires and flare-ups.

The Cocos fire near San Marcos remains a wild card, however and continued to move ahead of firefighters into the early hours of the morning. As of CAL FIRE's last update yesterday, it had burned 12,000 acres and was 5 percent contained.

In battling the Cocos fire, firefighters' efforts have been complicated not only by wind and climate but by geography and vegetation. Much of the terrain it is moving through is composed of steep, chaparral-covered slopes, traditionally difficult for firefighters on the ground to traverse. And chaparral cover can burn with the intensity of a crown fire, thanks to the resinous content of its leaves.

But lower winds today -- along with less competition from other incidents that are better under control -- open up the possibility of a stronger aerial assault.

Elsewhere, evacuation orders are lifting and schools are reopening for one last day before the weekend. In many formerly affected areas, residents are returning to their homes and communities to survey the damage and dust off the ashes.

Picking up the pieces

One resident considered herself fortunate after a harrowing night.

Eleanor Fitzgerald, 59, a registered nurse, had been in Nashville, Tenn., on a business trip and was on her way back to the airport Wednesday when she started getting phone calls and text messages from friends asking her if she was OK. Fitzgerald said that she had no idea that the canyon near where she lives in Carlsbad was on fire.

She started searching on her phone and saw images of a restaurant near her home that looked like it was on fire. Then she received a call from a friend who said, "It's just stuff. It can be replaced."

"I thought, are we at that point yet" that I would be losing everything? Fitzgerald said. "That's when I started to panic; I went into hyperventilating, practically."

"Everyone who spoke to me there was panic in their voice," Fitzgerald added.

Flying home, she said, she began accepting that she'd have to start over. She thought that as she was near retirement age, she could travel if she replaced the passport that was trapped in her home in the fire zone.

When she got near her neighborhood at 12:30 a.m. PDT yesterday, Fitzgerald said she was stopped by police who told her she couldn't get in. She stayed the night in a hotel and yesterday morning hiked a mile to get to her condo.

"It was like a Stephen King novel," she said. The neighborhood looked abandoned, with almost no people visible. Every so often, she'd encounter a person with a backpack or stroller, and they would exchange stories about the day before. One neighbor recounted that police gave her five minutes to evacuate. The woman said to Fitzgerald that when she tried to pack pictures, an officer told her, "No, you have to go now."

Fitzgerald's home survived, though it was without electricity. She retrieved her passport, grabbed chocolate-covered pretzels from her powerless freezer, and then walked around and looked around at the destruction nearby. In her neighborhood, the canyon had burned up to the homes, but firefighters had stopped flames before they consumed buildings. In another development nearby, she said, homes were incinerated.

"I am completely grateful that my home didn't burn," Fitzgerald said. "Now that I'm here ... I feel blessed and lucky, and so glad I have all my things with me, and my pictures."

Twitter: @NJ_Massey | Email: nmassey@eenews.net

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