As cooler weather helped firefighters make gains against a string of dangerous wildfires raging in Southern California, police announced an arrest in connection with one of the blazes that broke out in San Diego County this week.
Alberto Serrato, 57, was charged with arson Friday in one of the smaller fires — a 105-acre fire in suburban Oceanside that started Wednesday and is fully contained.
Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney's office, says Serrato wasn't seen igniting a fire but witnesses saw him adding dead brush onto smoldering bushes that flamed up. The spokeswoman says he has not been connected to any other fire.
The San Diego County sheriff's website says Serrato was arrested Wednesday in Oceanside, but his arrest wasn't announced until Friday. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.
Nine fires broke out during a heat wave, including eight in one day, raising suspicions that some may have been set.
Meanwhile, a new blaze cropped up Friday in the northwest section of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, bringing the number of active fires to at least 10.
Late Friday, Marine Corps officials lifted an evacuation order for some base housing although fires that have burned about 34 square miles of brush continue to rage. However, several camp areas and an infantry school remain under evacuation.
Three fires have now burned more than 22,000 acres on the base and surrounding areas. Base spokesman Jeff Nyhart says at their peak, the fires prompted about 8,400 military personnel and their families to leave. The fires are all only partially surrounded
State fire officials said Friday the first blaze that erupted in San Diego County between Tuesday and Thursday was caused by a spark from malfunctioning construction equipment. But it could take months to get to the bottom of the most damaging fires.
Residents of two neighborhoods in a suburb north of the city were allowed to return home Friday as crews build containment lines around the fires.
The hardest-hit areas were in San Marcos and Carlsbad, a suburb of 110,000 people that lifted evacuation orders late Thursday.
A flare-up Thursday in the suburb of San Marcos forced new evacuation notices to more than 18,000 homes as flames raced through tinder-dry brush on hillsides. That fire was 50% contained Friday evening, with 1,500 homes at risk, NBC San Diegoreported.
Two teens were arrested Thursday evening after police say they started at least two brush fires in San Diego's Escondido area, as a number of larger fires rage across the county.
Police arrested 19-year-old Isaiah Silva of Escondido and a 17-year-old juvenile on suspicion of attempted arson after a witness unsuccessfully tried to chase the teens, who were on bicycles, NBC San Diego reported.
Lt. Neal Griffin of Escondido police said investigators could not yet connect them to any of the larger fires currently burning across the county that have have driven tens of thousands from their homes and shut down schools and amusement parks.
A red flag warning, which means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now or will shortly, are in effect in Hanford, Oxnard and San Diego, according to the National Weather Service.
Flames have charred more than 15 square miles and caused more than $20 million in damage.
Firefighters found a badly burned body Thursday in a transient camp in Carlsbad — the first apparent fatality — and a Camp Pendleton Fire Department firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion while battling a blaze on the Marine base.
The fires are fed by brush and trees left brittle by prolonged drought. They are also being whipped by a Santa Ana wind system that reverses the normal flow of wind from the Pacific Ocean and creates tinderbox fire conditions.
Tourists coming to San Diego face a somewhat surreal situation. "The view of the fires on the fly in was a little bit terrifying," said Sam Pfeifle, who lives in Maine.
"It's also unsettling to show up at your in-laws only to find that their bags are packed in anticipation of being evacuated," he said.
Pfeifle's family spent the day at the beach Thursday, which was packed because many schools were closed due to the fires. But "other than some haze from the smoke" everything appeared normal. "Hate to think of people having their homes burn down not far away," he said.
As of Thursday, for the first time this century, the entire state of California is in a severe drought – or worse. The three worst levels of drought are severe, extreme and exceptional: 100% of the state is now in one of those three categories: (23.31% severe, 51.92.% extreme and 24.77% exceptional.)
A flare-up Thursday prompted 18,400 new evacuation notices in and around San Marcos, a north San Diego, suburb. But with cooler temperatures forecast, there was an overwhelming sense that far more damage could have been inflicted on a region of more than 3 million people.
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.