SAN DIEGO — The threat of two wildfires pushed by gusty winds eased Tuesday night after they chewed through canyons parched by California’s drought. Some residents in San Diego began returning home after the blazes prompted evacuation orders for more than 20,000 homes on the city’s outskirts and surrounding areas and another 1,200 homes and businesses in Santa Barbara County 250 miles to the north.
No homes were reported damaged in either fire, and authorities said the San Diego-area blaze was dying down. Winds in Santa Barbara County calmed down significantly after sunset, and firefighters were beginning to surround that fire. But the rugged terrain and unseasonably warm temperatures made firefighting difficult, creating some scary moments.
“At the point the fire is right now, we believe we have a pretty good handle on it,” San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar said. “We hope to do some more work through the night and into tomorrow, but I think the largest part of the emergency has passed.”
The flames that erupted in the fire-prone Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego quickly grew to 700 acres, driven by hot, dry Santa Ana winds.
By late afternoon, the flames ripped through canyons to approach expensive homes and new subdivisions on the ridges. It spread to Rancho Santa Fe, one of the nation’s wealthiest communities, known for its multimillion-dollar homes, golfing and horseback riding.
Black and gray smoke billowed over northern San Diego, filled with whirling ash and embers that created small spot fires. Flames crept within yards of some homes before firefighters doused them.
On one road, people on bicycles and skateboards stopped to watch as a plane dumped water on flames a half-mile away. At least two high schools and three elementary schools were evacuated.
Cameron Stout, filling his tank at a gas station, got a text from his wife shortly after noon saying that she was packing up and leaving with the family’s pictures, laptops and other valuables. Their next-door neighbor’s home burned in a fire 15 years ago, he said.
“This area’s been through this before,” he said. “I thought the recent rains would have prevented this from happening. But after a couple days of 100 degrees, it’s reversed all that.”
Katy Ghasemi, 14, was held for hours in her high school classroom before the school let the children go home. Students studied, ate lunch, did yoga and looked out the windows at the fire.
“There were a lot of flames. Some were right near the front gate,” she said.
The city of San Diego issued between 16,000 and 17,000 evacuation orders, according to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, including 300 that Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman described as mandatory. Gore said the sheriff’s department issued an additional 5,000 evacuation orders outside city limits.
By nightfall, an unknown number of San Diego residents began returning home as the fire moved away from the city, Gore said.
Meanwhile, in the Santa Barbara County community of Lompoc, 1,200 homes and businesses were under an evacuation order from a fire that quickly grew to more than 500 acres.
There were downed power lines and heavy brush in the area, said David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Chrissy Cabral, 57, rounded up friends to help her remove 19 head of cattle she keeps at a local ranch after the fire shifted directions. She said firefighters warned her: “Get out now.”
“I was probably half a mile away from the side of it, but unfortunately for me … the winds twisted and blew it back on top of me,” she said.
“It was very high flames, very dark,” she added.
The group used trailers to move the cows five miles away, a repeat of 10 years ago when a fire roared through the area and burned her corral, Cabral said.
Months of drought have left much of the landscape ready to burn. Downtown Los Angeles has recorded just 6.08 inches of precipitation with little time left in the July 1-June 30 rain year. That’s less than half its annual average rainfall.
“Fire season last year never really ended in Southern California,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. His agency has responded to more than 1,350 fires since Jan. 1, compared with an average of 700 by this time of year.