Valley Fire: East County blaze grows to 17,565 acres, now 11% contained

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SAN DIEGO – The fast-moving Valley Fire, which broke out Saturday in the East County, has scorched 17,565 acres, tearing through nearly two dozen homes and commercial properties, Cal Fire San Diego officials said Tuesday.

As of 8:23 p.m., officials said the fire is 11% contained but continues to show rapid rates of spread. The wildfire is being pushed by a westerly wind, burning in the area of communication towers at Mt. Pinos Mountain and near Corte Madera, Cal Fire said.

Nearly 700 fire personnel are assigned to battle the blaze, a Cal Fire incident commander said.

Firefighters are attempting to protect properties along the wildfire’s path while securing it in the eastern part of the county. The area’s hot and dry weather has made conditions difficult for crews to extinguish it, according to Cal Fire.

Late Tuesday, the agency urged residents to “be prepared to evacuate.”

“Those in/near evacuation areas, do not wait to be told to leave,” officials said. “Always evacuate if you do not feel safe, even if you are not in an evacuation area.”

County officials said Tuesday that the evacuation point at Joan McQueen Middle School in Alpine has closed after it hit capacity. The centers at El Capitan High School at 10410 Ashwood Street in Lakeside and Steele Canyon High School at 12440 Campo Road in Spring Valley remain open.

Schools will remain closed through the end of the week near the Valley Fire.

The San Diego Humane Society also announced a new evacuation site for horses at Lakeside Rodeo Arena, 12584 Mapleview Street. This is the only evacuation site where horses can be accommodated.

Cal Fire gave an update on their efforts at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, saying the fire was still 3% contained. Up to 600 firefighters and support staff are assigned to the blaze, which tripled in size during the last four days.

Cal Fire said the Valley Fire fire is a significant threat to communities and they are doing everything they can to protect lives and property. Resources are limited because up to 14,000 firefighters are battling 25 major fires across the state. Cal Fire said the unified command is working to get more help to East County.

“We have a sleeping giant in the backcountry. Tonight winds are going to blow and this fire has the potential to burn. We need the public to heed the warnings of officials,” Tony Mecham, CAL FIRE San Diego Unit Chief, said.

Emergency officials are urging families to be prepared and leave early if their area is threatened. According to San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore, his department has already helped 1,420 people evacuate. He warned everyone to have three days worth of supplies. Residents, particularly those who live in communities around the fire perimeter, are asked to be ready to evacuate in 15 minutes or less.

San Diego Gas & Electric also warned that it may have to shut off power in certain areas to reduce wildfire risk in the coming days.

Firefighters are expecting more challenges Tuesday as Santa Ana winds could bring 40-50 mph gusts through Wednesday. The National Weather Service in San Diego issued a red flag warning for the mountains and western valleys that will take effect noon Tuesday and last until 8 p.m. Wednesday due to critical fire weather conditions.

Operations Section Chief Mike Milkovich said a main worry is wind blowing embers over fire lines.

“The ember cast is what it’s called, when the embers get up in the air and go over the line,” he said. “The fuel beds in front of the fire are very receptive. Then the fire can pass over the lines and continue. And as we continue west, there are many more homes in the path of the fire.”

“That’s always a game changer for us when they come in. We’ve seen that evident in the past several years whether that be the Cedar Fire, the Lilac Fire, the May wildfires of 2013. Santa Ana is always a significant factor in that so that’s the real concern tonight,” Cal Fire Capt. Kendal Bortisser told FOX 5.

Cal Fire said firefighters were using 82 engines, 14 helicopters, 8 water tenders, 8 air tankers and 4 bulldozers Tuesday.

The Jamul-Dulzura Union School District said schools will remain closed through the end of the week.

The fire burning in the Lawson Valley and Carveacre areas has destroyed 11 homes and 25 outbuildings.

Cal Fire said Monday it would start using military aircraft on the fire, exercising the department’s agreement with the Navy Third Fleet and the First Marine Expeditionary Force, adding an additional six helicopters to the firefight.

Two people have been hurt since the fire started but officials have not provided information about their conditions.

The San Diego Foundation announced a disaster fund has been established to help families affected by the Valley Fire. Click here for more information.

Power outages

San Diego Gas & Electric is warning of possible power shutoffs. The company said in an email to Tuesday that it may have to shut off power to reduce wildfire risk in the coming days.

SDG&E sent notifications to approximately 16,700 customers at risk of the public safety power shutoffs. Customers who were notified should be prepared to be without power through Thursday, depending on SDG&E’s need and ability to physically inspect equipment during daylight hours prior to re-energizing. 

San Diego Gas & Electric reported power outages still affecting hundreds of customers in the fire area Tuesday.

Officials reported Sunday that there was an immediate threat to Sunrise Power 500 KV power lines, which supply a large portion of San Diego County’s electricity.

View SDG&E’s outage map

Evacuations

An evacuation order was issued shortly before 3 p.m. Monday for the Corte Madera area south of Pine Valley. Around 11 a.m., an evacuation order was issued for the areas of Corral Canyon off-road area, Bobcat Meadow and Los Pinos.

An evacuation order remained in place for the community of Carveacre and Barrett Lake Dam. Evacuation warnings were still in place for Lake Morena, Dulzura, Dog Patch, Potrero, Campo, Honey Springs, Barrett Junction, Dearhorn Valley, Corte Madera, Pine Valley and the area from Lyons/Japatul Road to Interstate 8.

The San Diego County Emergency Site updated its map of the affected areas Monday.

An evacuation warning is voluntary but everyone should prepare to evacuate if an order is issued.

County officials said the evacuation point at Joan McQueen Middle School in Alpine has closed after it hit capacity. The open locations are El Capitan High School at 10410 Ashwood Street in Lakeside and Steele Canyon High School at 12440 Campo Road in Spring Valley.

The evacuation centers were set up by the American Red Cross, which will supply water, snacks and other items.

The sheriff’s department said residents who need help keeping larger animals safe during evacuations could bring them to the County Animal Services South Shelter, located at 5821 Sweetwater Road in Bonita, and call San Diego Humane Society at 619-299-7012, then press 1 for more information.

The sheriff’s office shared an updated list of road closures Monday night:

  • Lawson Valley Road at Skyline Truck Trail
  • Skyline Truck Trail at Wisecarver Truck Trail
  • Japatul Road at Japatul Valley Road at Lyons Valley
  • Lyons Valley Road at Skyline Truck Trail at Honey Springs
  • Japatul Road at Via Asoleado (also at Sequan Truck trail)
  • No access onto Corrall Canyon from Buckman Springs

View San Diego County disaster info updates

School impact

The Jamul-Dulzura Union School District announced Tuesday that schools will be closed through the end of the week.

The district comprises Jamul Elementary School, Oak Grove Middle School and Greater San Diego Academy.

Air quality concerns

The National Weather Service is warning for the potential for increasing smoke in the San Diego County area.

The county said as of Monday afternoon, air quality remained good in and near the coast and had improved in the inland valleys, where air quality was moderate.

While ground level smoke effects were minimal from the coast to the inland valleys, smoke continued to be widespread high above ground level over San Diego County.

The county said near and downwind of the fire, air quality can reach unhealthy levels. In areas of heavy smoke, assume that air quality levels are unhealthy for sensitive groups to unhealthy for all individuals. In areas with minor smoke impacts, assume that air quality levels range from moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups.

In areas where you smell smoke it is advised that you limit physical/outdoor activity.  If possible, stay indoors to limit your exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone, especially those residents with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children.

Fire grew rapidly

The fire began about 3 p.m. Saturday off Spirit Trail and Japatul Road and was described early by Cal Fire officials as burning at a dangerous rate of spread and a medium threat to structures. It exploded quickly — growing about 500 acres in a single hour.

By evening, officials announced the blaze had grown to around 1,500 acres. Video from photojournalists on the front lines showed flames ripping through homes and other structures in the area.

“We do have confirmation that there have been homes, structures destroyed and damaged,” Capt. Kendal Bortisser with Cal Fire told FOX 5. When aircraft took off Sunday morning to survey the damage and rejoin the battle, Cal Fire said the fire had grown to 4,000 acres.

Plumes of smoke could be seen for miles around the county.

Just before 10 p.m. Saturday, the Orange County Fire Authority announced it had dispatched a “strike team” of five fire engines and two battalion chiefs to assist their southern brethren, joining crews from the Cleveland National Forest and Cal Fire.

Shortly before 4 p.m. Sunday, Cal Fire said the fire had scorched 5,350 acres and was 1% contained. By 9 p.m., the fire had grown to 9,850 acres.

Monday morning, Cal Fire said the fire had burned 10,258 acres. By evening, the fire was at 17,345 acres and was 3% contained, Cal Fire said.

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