ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Firefighters scoured charred hillsides north of San Diego on Saturday to guard against a resurgence of flames that ripped through the region, while the last of tens of thousands of evacuees prepared to return home. For those battling a series of blazes for days, the relief was mixed with a sense of dread that drought-sapped vegetation, high temperatures and low humidity portend a long fire season ahead.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to more than 1,500 fires this year, compared with about 800 during an average year.
“Normally, I don’t even put wildfire gear in my vehicle until the end of April. This year I never took it out,” said Kirk Kushen, battalion chief of the Kern County Fire Department said at a base camp in Escondido. “We never really completed the 2013 fire season. It’s been a continuation.”
At least 10 fires spanning 39 square miles have chewed a destructive path through San Diego County since Tuesday, destroying 11 houses, an 18-unit apartment complex and two businesses. A badly burned body was found in a transient camp, and one firefighter suffered heat exhaustion.
The first blaze was caused by a spark from construction equipment, according to state officials, but it could take months to get to the bottom of the most damaging fires. Alberto Serrato, 57, pleaded not guilty Friday to an arson charge in connection with one of the smaller fires, but authorities say they don’t believe he started it, just added brush to it.
Ocean breezes and lower temperatures Saturday aided firefighters, who focused on a 1,000-acre blaze on the Camp Pendleton Marine base and a 4-square-mile blaze that started in the suburb of San Marcos.
Firefighters doused remaining hotspots with hoses and water-filled backpacks, sawed large logs and raked soil with shovels and other hand tools to ensure the ground was moist enough to prevent fires from returning.