FALLBROOK, Calif. — Retirement communities built on golf courses, semi-rural race horse stables and other usually serene sites were engulfed by flames as the San Diego area became the latest front in California's wildfire fight.
The fire broke out Thursday amid dry, hot, windy conditions across the region that would be extreme for any season, but are especially stunning just two weeks from winter.
It exceeded 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) in a matter of hours and burned dozens of houses as it tore through the tightly packed Rancho Monserate Country Club community in the small city of Fallbrook, known for its avocado orchards and horse ranches. Three people were burned while escaping the flames, said Capt. Nick Schuler of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Meanwhile, firefighters in Ventura — 130 miles (209 kilometers) to the north — tried to corral the largest and most destructive fire in the state, which has destroyed 430 buildings. The so-called Thomas Fire has grown to 180 square miles (466 square kilometers) since it broke out Monday. Fire crews made enough progress against large fires around Los Angeles to lift most evacuation orders.
The fire north of San Diego, driven by winds above 35 mph (56 kph), razed rows of trailer homes in the retirement community, leaving charred and mangled metal in its wake.
It wasn't immediately known what sparked the fire next to State Highway 76, but strong winds carried it across six lanes to the other side.
Evacuations were ordered in the area near the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base and schools and casinos were being used as shelters.
Cynthia Olvera, 20, took shelter at Fallbrook High School.
She had been at her Bonsall home with her younger sister and nephew when her father called from the family nursery to say the fire had reached the gate of their sprawling property.
After starting to drive away, the family turned around to recover forgotten personal documents — but it was too late. Trees were ablaze and flames were within 10 feet (3 meters) of the house.
“I didn't think it would move that fast,” she said.
Her older sister wanted to drive in to save her husband's car, but Olvera told her: “Don't do it. It's not worth it.”
Her sister heeded the advice and the family made it safely to the school. But the flames followed them, and the family had to pack up again when evacuation orders came for Fallbrook High School.
The family went to a second shelter, not knowing if their house survived.
As the flames approached the elite San Luis Rey Downs training facility for thoroughbreds, many of the more than 450 horses were cut loose to prevent them from being trapped in their stables if barns caught fire, said Mac McBride of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Herds of horses galloped past flaming palm trees in their chaotic escape of a normally idyllic place. Not all survived.
Horse trainer Scott Hansen said he knows that some of his 30 horses at the facility died.
“I don't know how many are living and how many are dead,” he said. “I guess I'll have to figure that out in the morning.”
It was not yet clear how many horses died, or which elite equine athletes didn't make it, but all of Friday's races at Los Alamitos Race Course were canceled as the racing community mourned.
Along the coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara, tiny beach communities were under siege as fires leapt from steep hillsides across U.S. Highway 101.
“We drove through a wall of flames,” Wendy Frank said, describing her ordeal after evacuating her horses from Ojai on Wednesday night. “I didn't know if we'd make it. I just put the accelerator down. I know we were going over 100 mph (160 kph), we could have been going much more, and just hoped for the best.”
Fires flared up Thursday along the highway, forcing an evacuation of dozens of homes at Faria Beach.
The massive fire threatened Ojai, a scenic mountain town of 7,000 people dubbed “Shangri-La” and known for its boutique hotels and New Age spiritual retreats.
Ash fell like snowflakes on citrus orchards scattered around town and on Spanish-style architecture as firefighters parked their trucks around houses in anticipation of winds picking back up.
Some businesses were closed, but staples could be found at Pat's Liquor, where Hank Cheyne-Garcia loaded up with supplies to fuel through another edgy night keeping sentry on the fire.
“It got a little too intense yesterday with the wind kicking up,” he said. “There was just so much smoke. Yesterday you couldn't see the street.”