San Diego County fire chars more than 5,300 acres, destroys 10 structures

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

Large crane helicopters drop water on the wild fire that came dangerously close to a home near Japatul Road on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020 in Alpine, California. - Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

SAN DIEGO — Hundreds of firefighters on the ground and in the air on Sunday dug into the second day of battling a fast-moving wildfire in the rugged terrain of the Japatul Valley southeast of Alpine that destroyed at least 10 homes and burned more than 5,350 acres.

The blaze, dubbed the Valley fire, was the nightmare scenario many had feared: a roaring wildfire chewing through vast stretches of the back country amid searing record-high temperatures, forcing homeowners to flee — all during a time of coronavirus-induced mask wearing and social distancing.

Boiling clouds of smoke pouring from the fire rose into the air and filtered over San Diego County with an acrid stench, making for unhealthy air conditions. Power lines from SDG&E were threatened by the blaze and some outages were reported on Sunday, another infernal day of triple-digit temperatures across the county.

And it is only the first week of September. That is weeks before what is historically seen as the peak fire season of October.

After more than a day of firefighting, much remains to be done: as of Sunday afternoon firefighters reported the fire was 1% contained.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. that the blaze is still moving at a dangerous to critical rate of spread and is currently moving east. However, if the Santa Ana winds roll through, that could shift flames to the west.

Structures are being threatened in the following communities: Carveacre, Lawson Valley, Wood Valley, Lyons Valley, Deer Horn Valley and Sycuan Indian Reservation.

Residents in the community of Carveacre were evacuated and one emergency shelter was set up at Steele Canyon High School in Jamul. A second shelter at Joan MacQueen Middle School in Alpine was closed Sunday morning. Power lines in the area were also affected during the blaze, causing some in the area to lose service.

The fire may have been ignited by a tractor fire around 2:50 p.m. Saturday on Carvacre Lane, according to several residents there. However Cal Fire had not officially confirmed the cause and was still investigating.

As another scorching day broke, several hundred firefighters were on the ground at 7 a.m. They were accompanied by multiple air tankers and firefighting helicopters in the sky battling the blaze.

Cal Fire couldn’t say what kind of structures were destroyed by the blaze, but at least two were homes on Montiel Truck Trail in Jamul, according to footage aired by 10News.

The fire was threatening additional structures in the Carveacre and Lawson Valley.

The fire was burning where the elevation in the scenic backcountry rises up to the Laguna Mountains. The tough terrain, which climbs from about 1,800 feet in Alpine to more than 2,600 on Japatul Valley Road, was one of several challenges facing firefighters.

“Certainly the temperature is going to be a challenge,” said Cal Fire spokesman Kendal Bortisser. “The steep terrain, all of the inaccessible areas, old growth that’s been there for a long time that’s tinder dry and ready to burn — all of those are going to be factors.”

Conditions fire crews are facing are brutal. On Saturday, temperatures at the scene reached115 degrees. Sunday they dipped slightly, to around 109 degrees, but Jake Rodriguez, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service and Cleveland National Forest, said that winds up to 20 miles per hour from the east and northeast were expected to kick up in the afternoon.

“That can be significant. It’s not quite a Santa Ana, but that means it starts pushing the fire instead of the fire following the topography of the land,” Rodriguez said. “Whichever way the wind is blowing the fire will go, and it can start spotting, which means embers are carried up to a half-mile in front of the fires and starting new spot fires.”

Bill Fincher who lives in Lawson Valley, said most of his family, including three dogs and a lizard, evacuated their home on Wood Valley Trail as the sun went down Saturday. His wife, Rachelle, stayed at their ranch.

“She said, ‘Until i see flames, I’m not leaving,’ ” Fincher said. “I talked to her today. She said the house looks good.”

Fincher’s son, Brandon Fincher, goes to school in Prescott, Arizona, and decided to visit his family over the weekend with a friend. They saw smoke from the blaze as they were pulling into town and watched as the plume of smoke grew.

“Then we heard an explosion like a propane tank in the distance,” the younger Fincher said. “Once the sun went down and we could see flames in the distance, we thought, ‘Oh, we should go.’ ”

As they were leaving, the power went out.

SDG&E said its Sunrise Powerlink, a 117-mile transmission line that connects renewable energy resources from Imperial Valley to San Diego, was out of service.

Helicopters on Sunday morning were washing the lines to remove soot and other residue that settled on the equipment during the blaze. Pilots in choppers were also inspecting the line to see if it had been damaged.

SDG&E officials said as soon as CalFire advises the utility that it’s safe to go into the area, utility crews will move in and determine what is required to get the line back into service.

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune