Camp Pendleton was still trying on Wednesday, July 5, to determine the cause of a June 28 fire that blackened 760 acres of brush and threw a fright into San Clemente.
The fire caused no structural damage and no reported injuries, officials said, although it came as close as a quarter-mile to the nearest San Clemente homes. At its peak the fire had 305 firefighters battling it.
The flames that began the afternoon of June 28 along Cristianitos Road were under control late into the night of June 29, said Capt. Larry Kurtz of the Orange County Fire Authority.
Kurtz said 75 percent of the Christianitos Fire was on property, 25 percent in San Clemente. He said firefighters set intentional fires, called backfires, “almost all the way around the fire,” to consume brush in a controlled manner ahead of the fire.
“We are just so grateful that they saved our homes,” said Liane Hawkins, whose Pacific Shores home sits along the top street in the Rancho San Clemente community. “We could see all the fire that night.
“It came mighty close,” Hawkins said. “We were all out in the street. We packed all our stuff … we packed both of our Kias … just in case. It was like midnight, and we were just standing in the street watching the sky get pinker and pinker. We feel very lucky to live in San Clemente and especially lucky that we have such a great fire department.”
Kurtz said it was a cooperative effort of firefighters from Camp Pendleton, the OCFA, CalFire and the U.S. Forestry Service. Capt. Brian Villiard said the fire’s cause remained under investigation, but he added that the point of origin was not near any of Camp Pendleton’s military training areas.
Vonne Barnes, president of the 5,000-resident Rancho San Clemente Community Association, issued a message a week after the fire, expressing concern about Camp Pendleton doing mortar and artillery exercises during high fire season. She also questioned whether the base maintains adequate landscape modification zones bordering San Clemente.
She said the association “respectfully requests” the base limit training exercises that have potential to spark fires to winter months and maintain better landscape controls buffering San Clemente.
Villiard said the base, established in 1942, trains Marines year-round to be ready to deploy anywhere in the world at any time, and curtailing training seasonally “would have a pretty significant impact on our ability to carry out our mission.”
Officials said Camp Pendleton’s designated impact areas for explosives are in the interior of the 125,000-acre base and are designed to contain all munitions used there. The impact area closest to San Clemente is listed as 3.2 miles from the city.
“We take great care to manage our ranges and other areas on base to mitigate the risk of fire and threats to our surrounding communities. Environmental stewardship and public safety are always a top priority while we continue to prepare our Marines for operations wherever the need arises,” the base said in a statement.
The fire was dubbed the Cristianitos Fire because it broke out on the north side of Cristianitos Road. The road is home to San Mateo Campground, a 150-space campground that San Onofre State Beach operates a mile inland from El Camino Real, under lease from Camp Pendleton. The campground was not threatened by the fire and continued normal operations, officials said.
“The point of ignition was well inland of San Mateo Campground,” said Rich Haydon, area state parks superintendent. “The direction of spread was away from the campground.”
The San Clemente/Dana Point Animal Shelter, located in San Clemente near the city’s border with Camp Pendleton, was closed to the public due to street closures but staff was allowed in to care for the animals.
“The animals are all safe and being well cared for by our shelter kennel attendants,” said Kim Cholodenko, shelter manager, via e-mail during the fire. She said she was in contact with authorities in case evacuation might be needed. She said the animals showed no ill health effects.
Although schools near the fire zone were not in session, officials said they monitored alerts by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and were prepared to limit outdoor activities for any students on campuses if smoke became a factor.
Bella Collina Towne & Golf Club in San Clemente reported that winds blew smoke and ash over the golf course the evening of June 28, and Bella Collina canceled a children’s camp the next day as a precaution.
But by morning a breeze had shifted, visibility was great and golfers were playing the course, said Mark Zane, general manager.
“We’ e getting quite a show with the helicopters, picking up water from our pond. We’ve probably had close to 100 helicopter drops,” Zane said.
The worst fire in San Clemente’s history began on Camp Pendleton on warm winter day, Jan. 21, 1976. Santa Ana winds propelled it over a ridge into San Clemente where it charred 2,400 acres, destroyed 16 homes and damaged 144 others.
That fire, caused by a welder’s torch, led the city to develop the nation’s first ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in all new homes.
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