On the evening of May 13, most North County coastal residents breathed a sigh of relief that the “Bernardo“ fire in the Rancho Santa Fe area appeared to have not developed into a repeat of the deadly 2003 and 2007 firestorms.
That all changed by mid-morning on May 14. Humidity levels were down to 5 percent, beach temperatures already up into the high 80s, and strong Santa Ana winds were blowing from the east.
At 10:37 a.m., passing motorists first reported a fire on Poinsettia Lane, east of El Camino Real, at the northern most fairway of the La Costa Resort & Spa’s golf course. By the time fire trucks arrived, the fire had already spread across the four-lane Poinsettia Lane and was reported out of control on the hills behind the Alga Norte Community Park. The fire was heading north and west toward canyon homes off El Camino Real.
Within just few minutes, the fire jumped the six-lane El Camino Real and was heading through the canyons to the west. Southbound El Camino Real was shut down as residents, elementary schools, and office workers chose to voluntarily evacuate. Palomar Airport Road became extremely congested in both the east and westbound directions.
The thick black smoke in Carlsbad could be seen from most of coastal North County by 11:30 a.m.
By 12 noon, those watching the fire from the nearby Lowe’s shopping center, across the street from Palomar Airport, were told to leave the area. The canyons south of the airport, in the Aviara area, west of El Camino Real, were becoming fully engulfed. Mandatory evacuations were being issued, and reverse 911 calls were going out in surrounding neighborhoods from Palomar Airport Road to Alga Road and east through Bressi Ranch and the Alga/Alicante areas.
By 1:00 p.m., CHP had closed the Palomar Airport Road exit off of I-5. Legoland, fearing power outages, shut down the park. A temporary evacuation center was set up at Westfield Plaza Camino Real shopping center off Highway 78.
Fire units responded from as far away as Chula Vista and Riverside County, including units from San Diego’s military bases. Amazingly, with fire helicopters and spotter planes circling in vicinity, Palomar Airport’s airspace appeared to not have shut down to private planes during the crisis. The airport did have trouble getting their air-traffic controllers to the job site. Reportedly, CHP officers had to escort them in from a drop off point.
Just as the City of Carlsbad was declared a disaster area, smoke could be seen in the northeast coming from a new fire in the Bonsall area.
Around 2:00 p.m., the winds shifted to an easterly direction, increasing humidity coming off the ocean but pushing flames back into residential neighborhoods. Four homes, 18 condos, and two businesses were destroyed.
Carrie from Carlsbad was in her fifth hour of looking for her mom. Sharon Culver has Alzheimer’s and was evacuated from a senior-care facility on El Camino Real. By 5:00 p.m. she still had not located where the elderly residents were placed, but her sister was heading to the evacuation center to see if she could get more information.
The stores and shops in the Bressi Ranch shopping center, except for Stater Brothers and Trader Joe’s, were closed. The assistant manager at Stater Brothers said he stayed open to make sure residents could get water and food.
The shake-my-head moment came when I found the nearby Pure Burger restaurant opened. With smoke surrounding the nearby neighborhoods, ash falling from the sky, helicopters flying back and forth, the man next to me at the counter inquired as to what the hubbub was about. I said, “It’s a major fire.” He said he hadn’t been watching TV.
As it appeared the worst was over in Carlsbad, around 4:00 p.m., a new, large plume of black smoke could be seen a few miles east in San Marcos. It was reported that CSU–San Marcos was being evacuated.
Carlsbad Fire Department investigator Dominic Fieri returned to the flash point to begin his investigation. He would like to talk to anyone that spotted the fire prior to the fire department arriving. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also jumped two fences to tell ground crews on the La Costa golf course not to be driving their maintenance carts through the burn area, as it could be a crime scene.
At an evening press conference, several officials, including county supervisor Bill Horn, alluded to uncharacteristic number and timing of the North County fires. Investigators will look into the possibility of arsonists, or as some residents on the street talked about, possible terrorism.
“It could have been just one golfer’s stogie that started this whole thing, “ said one resident.