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Arson investigation underway as fires continue to ravage Southern California

Published time: May 16, 2014 03:39
A house burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. (AFP Photo / David Mcnew)

A house burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. (AFP Photo / David Mcnew)

Wildfires continued to whip through southern California on Thursday, forcing more people to evacuate their homes in the San Diego area and inspiring the governor to declare a state of emergency. Officials have opened an investigation into arson.

San Diego County officials have had no choice but to maintain existing evacuation advisories for the thousands of people who live or work in the path of the fires. Orders issued Wednesday prohibited the 9,000 students who normally attend California State University to avoid campus. More were advised to stay away from their usual places of school and employment on Thursday, as the fires showed no sign of slowing down.

That’s the number one priority, is to save life and then to save property,” San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said at a news conference on Thursday, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times. “We are not out of the woods yet.”

A wildfire threatens homes in San Marcos, California, on May 15, 2014. (AFP Photo / Jorge Cruz)

The wildfires have so far destroyed 10,000 acres, with emergency crews struggling to contain the flames and prevent additional homes from being put in jeopardy. One person was found dead at a transient camp in the Ambrosia area, but the body was too badly burned for firefighters to determine an identity. No injuries have been reported.

San Marcos was among the worst hit areas, with only five percent of an 800-acre fire under control. An additional 13,000 homes and businesses were named in a new evacuation notice, with Sheriff Bill Gore telling reporters that so many notices were sent out as a “reminder to everybody just how volatile this can be.”

A firefighter pulls a hose into position to battle the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. (AFP Photo / David Mcnew)

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Diego County, making it possible for officials to take advantage of special resources and funding to battle the flames. An estimated $22 million in damage has already been caused, with Sheriff Gore admitting that arson is among the causes being investigated.

No less than eight fires were blazing in Southern California on Thursday, seven of them in San Diego County. Firefighters have sought to dampen the blazes by dumping water on them from above, with 22 military aircraft working to help overwhelmed local crews. Still, the risk remains extremely high because of dry conditions and strong winds, a lethal combination for firefighters.

Already this year, Cal Fire has responded to an over 100 percent increase in the number of wildfires than average,” California Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told the Times on Thursday. “It starts with the drought. The grass, the brush and the trees – not only in San Diego County, really across California – are really dry.”

A firefighter pulls a hose in position while battling the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. (AFP Photo / David Mcnew)

The entire state of California is experiencing “severe drought” conditions, meteorologists reported on Wednesday. The hot, dry air and record temperatures have only contributed to the devastating flames.

The combination of hot temperatures, gusty Santa Ana winds and widespread single-digit humidity will bring an extended period of dangerous fire weather conditions to much of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties,” warned the Los Angeles office of the National Weather Service.

Schools will be closed through Friday, officials said, with lower temperatures over the weekend expected to aid firefighters.

Residents looks at the burning remains of their home that was destroyed in the Poinsettia fire, one of nine wildfires fueled by wind and record temperatures that erupted in San Diego County throughout the day, on May 14, 2014 in Carlsbad, California. (AFP Photo / David Mcnew)