Flames engulfed suburban homes and shot up along canyon ridges in one of the worst of several blazes that broke out Wednesday in Southern California during a second day of a sweltering heat wave, taxing fire crews who fear the scattered fires mark only the beginning of a long wildfire season.
Thick black smoke darkened blue skies over the Pacific coast city of Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego, known for its Legoland California amusement park. The park was closed Wednesday because of a power outage caused by the fire.
At least two firefighters suffered minor injuries — one heat-related and one from smoke inhalation — since Tuesday.
Thousands were asked to evacuate their homes in Carlsbad after the blaze erupted at about 10:34 a.m. Wednesday and spread through rapidly heavy brush before jumping into residential areas.
Despite a state fire report of 30 homes burned earlier in the day, Carlsbad Fire Chief Michael Davis said he knows of just three homes destroyed and about a dozen damaged, all of them in the same neighbourhood.
The wind-driven wildfire tossed embers onto roofs and trees, igniting them. Firefighters found themselves evacuating people and battling the blaze at the same time, Nick Schuler of Cal Fire said.
He said the fire's forward spread had been stopped, but hotspots remain. More than 50 engines are coming in from around the state to help in San Diego County.
"There's days of work to be done" before the fire is doused, Davis said, adding that "this fire's fingered in all locations."
A steady stream of residents stopped at a roadblock on a four-lane thoroughfare as they tried to return home to collect valuables.
Richard Sanchez watched nervously as a plume of black smoke rose near his home. He had left his house an hour earlier in sandals to run an errand.
"All I want to do is get there and evacuate," said Sanchez. "We have a plan, but I can't execute it."
As authorities yelled "Please evacuate!" in Joe Post's Carlsbad neighbourhood, he grabbed a garden hose and doused a palm tree in flames between his home and his neighbour's. He debated about leaving his home but was worried what he might find upon returning.
"Work water work!" he shouted, spraying down charred landscaping near his home.
Three elementary schools were evacuated and expected to remain closed for the week. The students were among thousands in the area of north San Diego County who were told to evacuate because of various wildfires.
Another wildfire further north forced the evacuation of residents in military housing at Camp Pendleton, and the closure of an elementary school on the Marine Corps base. A third fire spread from a burning vehicle on coastal Interstate 5 to roadside brush near the northwest corner of the Marine base.
Authorities reported 50 per cent containment of a 2.42-square-mile fire that broke out Tuesday and forced thousands of people to flee the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego. In Santa Barbara County, a 600-acre blaze near Lompoc was 50 per cent contained.
State fire officials say triple digit temperatures and the drought were setting conditions for an unusually busy firefighting season.
Evacuation orders were lifted for all of the more than 20,000 residents in and around San Diego on Tuesday night just a few hours after they were called, and all but a handful of those in 1,200 homes and businesses told to evacuate in Santa Barbara County had been allowed to return.
The Santa Barbara County blaze, 250 miles to the northwest, was 50 per cent contained Wednesday. Firefighters also adjusted its size downward to 600 acres.
In the mountains of southwestern New Mexico, crews battling a 9-square mile wildfire are preparing for high winds this week. And in the Texas Panhandle, about 2,100 residents have started returning to their homes after wildfire burned at least 156 structures. The fire in the Fritch area was 85 per cent contained Wednesday.