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Weary crews prepare for long wildfire season

Crews who fought California fires for days prepare for long season; evacuees return home

Houses sit untouched above a canyon ravaged by wildfire Friday, May 16, 2014, in Carlsbad, Calif.  Some evacuation orders were lifted early Friday in ...
Sean Teng, right, holds open the front door as the Teng family dog Pup arrives home from wildfire evacuations, Friday, May 16, 2014, in Carlsbad, Cali...
Nina Huang, left, greets her neighbor, Snow Teng, right, in the middle of their street after coming home from wildfire evacuations Friday, May 16, 201...
Sean Teng, right,  holds on to the family dog, Pup, front, as his father Midi Teng, center, and sister Annie Teng, left, arrive home from wildfire eva...
Midi Teng carries the family dog, Pup, out of the car as he arrives home from wildfire evacuations Friday, May 16, 2014, in Carlsbad, Calif. Some evac...
Marines move military vehicles near the entrance to Marine Corps Camp Pendleton in front of smoke plumes from the Las Pulgas wildfire burning on base ...
Chase and Brittany Boslet take pictures of smoke from the Las Pulgas fire burning on the Marine Corps Camp Pendleton base Friday, May 16, 2014, from a...
Marines move military vehicles near the entrance to Marine Corps Camp Pendleton in front of smoke plumes from the Las Pulgas wildfire burning on base ...

California Wildfires

Houses sit untouched above a canyon ravaged by wildfire Friday, May 16, 2014, in Carlsbad, Calif. Some evacuation orders were lifted early Friday in ...

California Wildfires

Sean Teng, right, holds open the front door as the Teng family dog Pup arrives home from wildfire evacuations, Friday, May 16, 2014, in Carlsbad, Cali...

California Wildfires

Nina Huang, left, greets her neighbor, Snow Teng, right, in the middle of their street after coming home from wildfire evacuations Friday, May 16, 201...

California Wildfires

Sean Teng, right, holds on to the family dog, Pup, front, as his father Midi Teng, center, and sister Annie Teng, left, arrive home from wildfire eva...

California Wildfires

Midi Teng carries the family dog, Pup, out of the car as he arrives home from wildfire evacuations Friday, May 16, 2014, in Carlsbad, Calif. Some evac...

California Wildfires

Marines move military vehicles near the entrance to Marine Corps Camp Pendleton in front of smoke plumes from the Las Pulgas wildfire burning on base ...

California Wildfires

Chase and Brittany Boslet take pictures of smoke from the Las Pulgas fire burning on the Marine Corps Camp Pendleton base Friday, May 16, 2014, from a...

California Wildfires

Marines move military vehicles near the entrance to Marine Corps Camp Pendleton in front of smoke plumes from the Las Pulgas wildfire burning on base ...

ESCONDIDO, California (AP) -- The last of tens of thousands of evacuees returned home after firefighters scoured charred hillsides north of San Diego to guard against a resurgence of flames that ripped through the region this week.

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," Kirk Kushen, battalion chief of the Kern County Fire Department, said Saturday 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 (101 square kilometers) 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.

In the Central California city of Modesto, a fire fueled by hot weather and high winds on Friday quickly spread to a row of town houses, destroying three of the structures and damaging six others. Authorities said the blaze started on the grassy berm of a freeway project frequented by homeless people.

Ocean breezes and lower temperatures Saturday aided firefighters, who focused on a 1,000-acre (400-hectare) blaze on the Camp Pendleton Marine base and a 4-square-mile (10.4-square-kilometer) 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.

Kushen, who was working his 10th straight day and was nearly 27 hours into his shift as his team prepared to go rest at a hotel, saw between 15 and 20 destroyed houses or other structures while combing the hills in and around San Marcos for smoke and smoldering brush.

San Marcos, a suburb of 85,000 people where strip malls and new housing tracts mix with older homes, slowly returned to normal as more roadblocks were removed.

"It's such a wonderful blessing to be back," Jamie Williams said as he unloaded three bags of clothing from his car that he took when ordered to evacuate Wednesday night. "It was almost a teary-eyed kind of thing."

Most evacuations were lifted, except for one neighborhood in San Marcos.

The tinder-box conditions have put firefighters on alert throughout California. The state firefighting agency went to peak staffing in the first week of April, instead of its usual start in mid-May.

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Associated Press videographer Haven Daley contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-04-13 02:25 GMT+08:00