Firefighters continued to make progress in the grueling effort to stop the spread of the Lilac fire, even as Santa Ana winds blew through parts of San Diego County on Saturday and were expected to reach areas already ravaged by wildfire on Sunday.
After days of fighting flames that cut swiftly across northern San Diego County, firefighters had the blaze 60 percent contained and holding at 4,100 acres — developments that afforded a glimmer of hope in communities not yet out of danger.
More sobering was news that the number of homes destroyed by the fire had risen to 182, and 23 damaged, most of them in Fallbrook and Bonsall, where the blaze began, and that 1,500 structures remain under threat.
State Route 76 remains closed in both directions from Interstate 15 to East Vista Way.
Throughout the day, as some residents were able to return to their homes to see what was still standing, fire crews worked to surround the blaze, keeping a close watch on hotspots and flying embers that could ignite structures and vegetation that had not burned.
The potential for winds to flare up and turn those hotspots into larger blazes is the biggest concern of fire officials, John Buchanan, a North County Fire Protection District spokesman, said Saturday.
Hundreds of people who likely share those concerns gathered at a town hall meeting at the Fallbrook Community Center Saturday evening, along with representatives from Cal Fire and other local agencies, and county Supervisor Bill Horn.
In a standing-room-only crowd, many had worried expressions on their faces and asked officials a variety of questions, including when the evacuation orders would be lifted, when services would be restored and — if they had lost their homes — what’s next?
Of the estimated 7,500 residents forced to evacuate in North County, some continued to wait for permission to go back to their homes, with officials admitting some reluctance to let them go back because they could be forced to leave again if fires flare up.
Jennifer Duren, 47, of Bonsall said at the meeting that she has not been able to go back to her home since she was evacuated Thursday.
Officials are “doing what they need to do, but it’s frustrating,” Duren said.
Chris Bryda, 59, of Fallbrook, said he and his wife came to the meeting to learn what they could about the fire because they had no phone, TV or internet service at home.
“The message is preparedness,” said Nick Shuler, Cal Fire division chief in San Diego. “San Diego is no stranger to disasters…. There’s an incredible amount of homes that were saved based on people’s preparedness.”
The Red Cross is keeping open two shelters for about 110 people affected by the fires and power outages. The shelters are at Palomar College, 1140 W. Mission Rd. in San Marcos, and Bostonia Park & Recreation Center, 1049 Bostonia St. in El Cajon.
Officials on Saturday closed shelters that had been operating in Carlsbad and Escondido.
The fire, which began Thursday near Bonsall, has injured at least seven people — four civilians and three firefighters.
One of the injured firefighters got hit by a falling tree Friday evening at the Ocean Breeze Ranch on West Lilac Road in Bonsall, a Cal Fire spokesman said.
The spokesman said the injury was not critical.
The other two firefighter injuries were a separated shoulder and smoke inhalation.
At least 65 of the houses lost in the fire were at the Rancho Monserate Country Club, a mobile-home community near the origin of the fire. The blaze also killed 46 horses at the San Luis Rey Downs thoroughbred-training facility.
The National Weather Service said Saturday the Santa Ana winds have begun to kick up again.
At 1:55 p.m. Saturday the dry winds off the desert were surging in East County, gusting to 54 mph at Sill Hill near Descanso, 45 mph in Crestwood, 40 mph in Portrero and 21 mph in Alpine.
Forecasters say the winds will snap through the foothills into the afternoon, then spread out across the county.
The winds are expected to hit the Lilac fire area and blow along the coast from Del Mar to Camp Pendleton at 20 to 30 mph, peaking in many areas early Sunday.
The relative humidity is below 15 percent across East County, adding to the wildfire danger countywide.
A red flag warning will remain in effect until 8 p.m. Sunday.
San Diego Gas & Electric field crews worked around the clock to restore power to more than 12,000 customers, leaving approximately 5,800 customers without power.
About 4,400 of those are in the fire zone and SDG&E can’t restore power to them.
SDG&E has cut power off intentionally to the other 1,400 for safety purposes because they are in areas with some of the strongest wind gusts. Most of those cut-offs happened Saturday morning, the utility said in an online post.
Eight SDG&E crews were scheduled to begin repairs of about 15 to 20 poles damaged in the Lilac fire. All damaged poles in the affected area will be replaced with fire-resistant steel poles with thicker, stronger wire, the utility said in its online post.
SDG&E crews also safely patrolled nearly 1,200 miles of power lines in Ramona, Otay Mesa, Warner Springs, Viejas and Pala Mesa.
Boil-water advisories were issued for a few areas without power: Boulevard Pines Mobile Home & RV Park, Butterfield Ranch in Julian, Cameron Corners in Campo and Campo Group.
The county Environmental Health Department says the winds may spread ash, which is toxic and especially dangerous to aquatic life, over a wide area.
The Lilac fire is one of six burning in Southern California. About 8,500 firefighters are battling the fires, which have collectively burned 175,000 acres.
On Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown surveyed the devastation in Ventura, the city hardest hit by this week’s firestorms. Brown’s visit comes four days after he declared a state of emergency.
“We’re facing a new reality in this state, where fires threatened people’s lives, their properties, their neighborhoods and billions and billions of dollars. So we have to have the resources to combat the fires,” he told reporters during a news conference at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
The governor thanked firefighters for their efforts and expressed sympathy for residents who had lost their homes and animals, calling it a “horror” and “terrible tragedy for so many people.”
Brown added that climate change may exacerbate the weather conditions that caused the wildfires to explode.
“This is the new normal, and this could be something that happens every year or every few years,” he said. “We’re about to have a firefighting Christmas.”
The Santa Ana winds are hitting during an unusually dry period in San Diego County. San Diego averages 3.22 inches of rain between October 1 and December 31. Since October 1 of this year, San Diego has only received 0.02 inches of precipitation, says the National Weather Service. There’s no rain in the forecast through December 20.
The only drier period came in 1929, when San Diego received just a trace of rain between October 1 and December 31.
Staff writers Sandra Dibble and Gary Robbins and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.
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