California wildfires: Could foul play be to blame?

Two teenagers have been arrested for setting small fires in Escondido, Calif. No evidence links them to a string of wildfires in San Diego County, but some experts wonder if arson may be at play.

Gregory Bull/AP
A structure burns during a wildfire on May 15 in Escondido, Calif. One of the nine fires burning in San Diego County suddenly flared Thursday afternoon and burned close to homes, trigging thousands of new evacuation orders.

The arrests of two teenagers accused of starting small brush fires in Escondido, Calif., have fueled suspicions that foul play may have spurred the nine major blazes raging across southern California.

Escondido police arrested Isaiah Silva and a 17-year-old minor on suspicion of attempted arson Thursday evening, according to NBC San Diego. While investigators have not found any evidence connecting the two teens to the larger wildfires that have scorched the region, suspicions are running high.

In the past three days, a spate of wildfires has torched more than 15 square miles, forced the evacuation of 125,000 people, and caused $20 million in damages. At least one person has been found dead in a transient camp in Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego, though the cause of death has yet to be determined.

The near-simultaneous eruption of so many fires has fueled suspicions of foul play.

Jeff Carle, a retired assistant chief with the San Diego Fire Department, told NBC 7 on Thursday that arson is a serious possibility.

"I think it’s a very good chance it’s arson," Mr. Carle told the local station. "But you have to have a very deliberate process [to determine] that it was, in fact, arson."

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore has urged residents not to jump to any conclusions.

"I don’t want to pre-judge anything – investigations will be done between fire and our bomb-arson squad into the origin of every fire," Sheriff Gore said at a press conference. "We just don’t know at this time, and I think it would be just pure speculation. Sure, we had a lot of fires, but you have to look at the conditions we’re in. The grass out there is nothing but kindling for these fires, and we had winds, you know, very high speeds."

Earlier this month, federal, state, and local fire officials cautioned that 95 percent of wildfires in southern California are caused by human activity, and they urged residents to be vigilant in helping to prevent fires as severe drought and unseasonably high temperatures set the stage for what could be the state's worst wildfire season on record, the Monitor’s Gloria Goodale reported earlier this month.

Hot weather has exacerbated the situation in the San Diego area, as firefighters struggle to battle flames in 100-degree heat. One firefighter has been treated for heat exhaustion while battling a blaze that grew to more than 9 square miles at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

"Unfortunately, Mother Nature was not on our side today," Capt. Mike Mohler of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told CNN's Erin Burnett on Thursday.

Unusually strong winds have whipped flames into tornado-like vortexes known in the scientific community as fire whirls and dubbed “firenados” on social media, the Los Angeles Times reports. These funnels of flames can quickly jump to dry grasses and ignite new fires.

The areas hardest hit have been Carlsbad, where a blaze swelled to 400 acres and consumed 18 apartment units, two commercial buildings, and four houses, and San Marcos, where evacuations included thousands of homes and some 9,000 California State University students.

By Thursday evening, firefighters had contained the Carlsbad blaze by 85 percent, and officials lifted the evacuation order. Firefighters made progress in battling the 1,200 Coos fire in San Marcos, and officials allowed some residents to return home Friday morning, according to San Diego public radio KPBS.

For some, like Anya Bannasch of Carlsbad, there was not much to come back to.

"We walked up to this place, and it was like a bomb went off," Ms. Bannasch told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" Thursday. "I can't even explain to you how just horrific it was."

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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