Fire investigators to scour for clues

SAN DIEGO - Arson investigators will continue scouring the county for clues Monday as to how the many fires that burned thousands of acres this week and destroyed dozens of homes and businesses were started, and by whom.
          
Retired San Diego Fire Captain Bob Lyon, a firefighter for 35 years, told 10News Sunday night that he believes a majority of the blazes were deliberately set.

“I have never seen that number of fires break out in that short a period of time,” Lyon said.

At one point, more than eight wildfires were raging at the same time. The conflagrations, which occurred amid strong Santa Ana winds, triple-digit highs and extremely dry ground cover, began around 11 a.m. Tuesday when the Bernardo Fire erupted off Nighthawk Lane, southwest of Rancho Bernardo. It scorched 1,548 acres before being declared fully contained Sunday night.

According to San Diego Fire-Rescue, the Bernardo Fire was sparked by accident by a backhoe operator working at a housing construction project near Del Norte High School. No structures were lost but a few minor injuries reported, mostly heat-related, city officials said.
 
The next major fire to break out was the Tomahawk Fire near Naval Weapon Station Fallbrook around 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, followed about an hour later by the Poinsettia Fire just south of Carlsbad's McClellan-Palomar Airport.
 
The Tomahawk Fire, which would turn out to be the first of several blazes at Camp Pendleton over last week, spread onto the eastern side of the sprawling Marine Corps installation and was 100 percent contained Sunday night after blackening an estimated 5,400 acres, according to base officials.

The Poinsettia Fire was stopped at 600 acres and was fully contained late Saturday afternoon. It destroyed or significantly damaged eight single-family homes, two multi-family apartment buildings, two commercial buildings and one trailer were destroyed or significantly damaged. Also, three single-
family homes sustained minor damage.
 
No confirmed injuries were immediately reported as a result of the Poinsettia Fire but authorities said they were looking into whether the fire killed a transient.

Crews checking for hot spots in a location known to have been used as a transient encampment in the vicinity of Ambrosia Lane and Calliandra Road discovered a badly burned body Thursday afternoon, city officials said. The victim's name and cause of death were remained under investigation today.

“It's been my experience to have this number of fires in this close of time set is next to impossible for them to have been accidental,” Lyon said.

Lyon said investigators will work to rule out any natural or accidental causes. Then they will turn to arson.

“You're left with a deliberate act, and once you've determined it was a deliberate act -- while they're investigating the scene -- they're going to be looking for some type of ignition source,” Lyon said.

That could be a difficult task. An ignition source could be a device as simple as a cigarette or a flare.

Also part of the major fires last week was the Highway Fire, which broke out around noon Wednesday, making the firestorm span from the coast all the way east to state Route 76 and Old Highway 395 in the Deer Springs area.
 
The Highway Fire burned 441 acres before being fully contained Saturday. No one was hurt and no structures were lost but the cost of fighting the blaze was an estimated $1.1 million, according to Cal Fire.
 
Around 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, the firestorm grew to include what would become known as the Cocos Fire. The nearly 2,000-acre wildfire destroyed about three dozen structures south of Highway 78 in the San Marcos area, and cost more than $4.2 million to fight, according to Cal Fire. No one was injured.
 
The non-injury Cocos Fire was declared fully contained Sunday, though crews remained in the area early today putting out hot spots.   

Cell phone video like the one sent in by a viewer that shows what could be the ignition point of the Cocos Fire are the kinds of things Lyon says investigators will be looking at.

“Once they've got all that, the other thing they'll look for are previous people they've had encounters with for fire setters, somebody who has recently gotten out of prison, might have been an arsonist,” said Lyon.

Lyon says it will be difficult for investigators to obtain the proof they need because of where the wildfires may have originated, areas where there are typically few people around, making it possible for someone to drive out on a road, walk down a pathway, start a fire, leave the area and never be seen.

“A lot of the times these people start off, they'll start little fires here and there and they learn from their mistakes, and they get better and better at it,” Lyon said. “It's definitely a disturbed individual, along the lines of a person who might be a pedophile or any number of sick type mental mindsets,”

Lyon said finding an ignition point is an extremely difficult task with wildland fires, especially if there is no video or witnesses. He added that it is possible an arsonist could have started the fires with something that would not leave a trace.

In addition to the Tomahawk Fire, Camp Pendleton crews battled three other significant fires last week. Together, they scorched 21,900 acres on base and at Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook.
 
The largest of the fires, the Las Pulgas Fire, had burned about 15,000 acres since it erupted for unknown reasons at about 3:15 p.m. on Thursday near a sewage plant in Camp Las Pulgas. The blaze was 75 percent contained Sunday evening, base officials said.
 
The third major blaze, dubbed the San Mateo Fire, began spreading just before 11:30 a.m. Friday near Basilone Road. It had grown to about 1,500 acres Sunday and was 97 percent contained, according to base officials, who estimated that almost 18 percent of the base was blackened. No structural losses or injuries were reported.

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