Weather gives San Diego firefighters a break for now

Wildfires around San Diego are being contained as cooler, damper weather moves in. But it's just the beginning of a fire season likely to be severe as California experiences extreme drought.

Gregory Bull/AP
Nina Huang, left, greets her neighbor, Snow Teng after coming home from wildfire evacuations in Carlsbad, Calif. Some evacuation orders were lifted near the fiercest wildfires in San Diego County, as crews building containment lines around the blazes hoped cooler temperatures will help them make further progress.

Better weather is expected to give firefighters in the San Diego area a break this weekend, dampening the hot, dry, windy conditions that have helped spawn and then spread a series of blazes over thousands of acres, destroying at least eight homes and an 18-unit condominium complex, and forcing an estimated 121,000 residents to evacuate.

“We’re going to get a much more significant cool-down on Saturday,” National Weather Service forecaster Miguel Miller told the U-T San Diego newspaper. “Temperatures should come down eight to 12 degrees and the humidity should increase from like 5 percent to as high as 15 to 30 percent. We’re expecting another significant step in the right direction Sunday – both lower temperatures and more humidity.”

The relief is likely to be temporary, however, as California faces the potential for an unusually threatening fire season.

Huffington Post reports that for the first time this century, the US Drought Monitor has declared all of California to be in a “severe” drought, with many areas of the state in an even worse condition, from "extreme" to "exceptional," the poorest possible rating.

“This is a once-in-a-generation conversation,” said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, adding that the last time California experienced comparable conditions was in the mid-1970s.

“The state has doubled its population between then and now,” Mr. Svoboda told HuffPost. “You’ve got a lot more people using a relatively finite amount of water.”

Authorities are pursuing the possibility of arson connected to some of the fires.

Police in Escondido arrested two people, ages 17 and 19, for investigation of arson in connection with two small fires that were extinguished within minutes. But they found no evidence linking the suspects to the 10 biggest wildfires.

Alberto Serrato, 57, pleaded not guilty Friday to an arson charge in connection with one of the smaller fires, a 105-acre fire in suburban Oceanside that started Wednesday and is fully contained.

Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney's office, said witnesses saw Serrato adding dead brush onto smoldering bushes, which flamed up. He has not been connected to any other fire, Sierra said.

Oceanside police Lt. Sean Marshand said Serrato is believed to have added fuel to the fire but not to have started it. "Unfortunately we don't have the guy that we really want," he said.

Many of the estimated 121,000 residents forced to evacuate fires were back home by Friday, particularly in Carlsbad and San Marcos, where firefighters had mostly gained control over two of the largest and most damaging fires, U-T San Diego reported. Residents in one Carlsbad neighborhood celebrated their return home with a large block party Friday that featured a potluck dinner, prayer circle and praise for firefighters.

“We’re celebrating the joy of unexpected safety," and the courageous firefighters who "put their lives on the line,” Carla Keehn told the San Diego newspaper. “And that’s what public service is all about.”

 All together, the wildfires about 30 miles north of San Diego have caused more than $20 million in damage.

The region had become a tinder box in recent days because of conditions not normally seen until late summer – extremely dry weather, 50-mph Santa Ana winds and temperatures in the 90s.

"Relief is on the way, but it will be slow," senior meteorologist Jon Erdman reported Saturday. "The Santa Ana winds finally ceased on Friday, but it remained quite warm. This weekend, onshore winds will bring temperatures back to mid-May averages, with 70s along the coast, along with higher humidity, morning low clouds and fog."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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