All evacuation orders were lifted Sunday as firefighters gained the upper hand on the remaining four of nearly a dozen blazes that tore through Southern California last week — while the state's governor warned he was gearing up for what could be the drought-stricken region's worst wildfire season ever.
Gov. Jerry Brown told ABC's "This Week" that the state has 5,000 firefighters and has appropriated $600 million to battling blazes, but that may not be enough in the future.
"We're getting ready for the worst," Brown said. "Now, we don't want to anticipate before we know, but we need a full complement of firefighting capacity."
The state firefighting agency went to peak staffing in the first week of April, instead of its usual start in mid-May.
Thousands of additional firefighters may be needed in the future, Brown said, adding that California is on the "front lines" of climate change that is making its weather hotter.
All evacuation orders were lifted Sunday as ocean breezes and lower temperatures over the weekend allowed firefighters to get the upper hand on the remaining fires. They included a 4-square-mile blaze that started in the suburb of San Marcos, dubbed the "Cocos Fire" by officials, and three brush fires at Camp Pendleton.
San Marcos resident Troy Harper lives in the Coronado Hills community, the last of the fire zones to be repopulated Sunday. He spoke to NBC 7 about that moment when he saw a 40-foot wall of flames creeping up to his home.
“It was pulling wind in; it was circling and spinning,” he described. “I thought I was going to be in hell. I thought this is it. The oxygen is going to get less and less. It was pulling it in. It was getting real hot.”
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Soon enough, Harper saw help come in from above, with air crews making drops on the Cocos Fire.
“It was like a freight train. Just ‘drop, drop, drop, drop,’” he added.
Today, Harper is very grateful that his home is still standing. Though the fire charred vegetation around his property, his house was spared.
San Marcos resident Mike McInnis was also among the lucky ones. Though evacuated for three days, his home was also saved by fire crews, something for which he's eternally grateful.
“I’m just so thankful for the firefighters. To see this and to know what they’ve done, it means a lot. I’m really thankful for them; they saved our house,” McInnis told NBC 7. “For it to still be here is just amazing.”
“All the work and all the hours they put in, it’s unbelievable," he continued. "You look at it – it’s bad. It could’ve been worse. It’s just unbelievable.”
Unusually high temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds set conditions last week for the string of wildfires that broke out in San Diego County, causing more than $25 million in damage.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to more than 1,500 fires this year, compared with about 800 during an average year.
"And in the years to come, we're going to have to make very expensive investments and adjust," Brown said. "And the people are going to have to be careful of how they live, how they build their homes and what kind of vegetation is allowed to grow around them."
Firefighters over the weekend scoured charred hillsides north of San Diego to guard against a resurgence of flames.
The fires spanning 39 square miles chewed a destructive path through San Diego County, destroying at least 47 houses, an 18-unit apartment complex and three businesses. A badly burned body was found in a transient camp, and one firefighter suffered heat exhaustion.
Most homes were destroyed in two suburbs in San Diego's North County — San Marcos, an inland commuter city of new housing tracts, and Carlsbad, a coastal community and home of Legoland California.
The first blaze, the Bernardo Fire, started Tuesday and was caused by a spark from construction equipment, according to state officials. It could take months to get to the bottom of the most damaging fires.
Alberto Serrato, 57, pleaded not guilty Friday to an arson charge in connection with one of the smaller fires, but authorities say they don't believe he started it, just added brush to it.
Firefighters doused remaining hotspots with hoses and water-filled backpacks, sawed large logs and raked soil with shovels and other hand tools to ensure the ground was moist enough to prevent fires from returning.