After the fires...

Good news and bad following last year's North County disasters

Foundation where Greg Saska's home once stood
  • Foundation where Greg Saska's home once stood

Last year, on the morning of May 14, humidity levels were down to 5 percent, morning beach temperatures already up into the high 80s, and strong Santa Ana winds were blowing from the east. Over the next nine hours, North County exploded into flames. A new fire seemed to be erupting every hour.

Here’s a review of that smoke-filled day:

Number of county fires responded to – 14

Fatalities – One

Acres burned – 30,000

Buildings destroyed - 55

Cost in firefighting - $30 million

Number of people arrested – Four

Number convicted - One

Carlsbad fires, May 14, 2014

Although an early-morning fire was causing evacuations of some homes and schools near the Fallbrook’s naval weapons station on Camp Pendleton, what would become the first of the destructive North County fires erupted in Carlsbad at around 10:40 a.m. Large flames engulfing dry sagebrush were racing up the hills behind Alga Norte Community Park. By the time the fire department arrived, the flames had crossed over the six-lane El Camino Real and were already burning the old adobe home of Greg Saska at 1781 Skimmer Court.

Over the next few hours, evacuation orders were issued to 11,600 homes and businesses and 3 schools. Legoland was closed, as were the I-5 exits at Poinsettia Lane and Palomar Airport Road.

The Poinsettia Fire damaged or destroyed 8 homes, an 18-unit condo complex, and 2 commercial buildings.

Firefighters later found a badly burned body near the site of a burned-out farm-worker encampment. The man was later identified as Adolfo Valasco, address unknown, according to the coroner’s office.

At the vast burned acreage one week later, remains consisted of piles of metal trash — large appliances, bikes, and car parts: the once-thick brush had hid an illegal dumping grounds for decades.

This week, one year later, Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, said the Poinsettia Lane fire site had some good news. Where soils had burned so hot as to devoid it of all organic matter, wildflowers are now blooming despite the lack of substantial rain this past season. The scrub oak is also re-sprouting.

“It has a lot of energy stored up. It’s doing what we expect it to do,” said Halsey. He also pointed out that seedlings of plants were scattered during the fire, now they’re waiting to root and take hold. “It’s part a natural process, what is supposed to happen naturally in fires.”

However, he added the worst thing someone could do to harm nature’s restoration efforts is to scrape the soil — unnecessary clearing. “People just want the black [soil] to go away.” He said scraping fire-damaged soils allows non-native weeds to grow. “Leave it alone,” Halsey encouraged.

Carlsbad’s fire investigator, Dominic Fieri, said he turned over his findings to the police and coroner’s office after talking to witnesses and viewing videos of the first few minutes posted by residents on YouTube. The Reader was the first media source to correctly report that the fire had started on the northern most fairway of the La Costa Resort’s golf course. One year later, unfortunately, Fieri’s report list the cause as “undetermined.”

While Carlsbad police may take another year to continue their investigation and possibly issue charges, insurance agencies have been all over the fire scene, using their own private investigators. Reportedly, lawsuits will be filed once the police issue the report publicly.

Greg Saska’s adobe home, which wasn’t insured, was scraped to the foundation and has yet to be rebuilt. He tried living on his property in a tent, but reportedly has moved in to a nearby hotel. He asks residents to continue to donate to his rebuilding fundraising campaign.

The Poinsettia Fire was not to be the most destructive fire that day. The San Marcos/Cocos Fire was started by a teenager around 4:30 p.m. She had lit a smaller fire behind her home. She thought she had extinguished it but sparks blew in the heavy winds. The subsequent firestorm destroyed 30 homes in the Escondido and Harmony Grove areas. She is currently awaiting sentencing.

Three others were arrested that day, suspected of starting fires in Escondido and Oceanside, but charges were dropped.

Carlsbad fire’s Fieri said that despite concerns voiced by several local elected leaders, including 5th District supervisor Bill Horn, the fires on May 14, 2014, had nothing to do with terrorism or coordinated arsonists. “It was just the low humidity, heat, and wind,” said Fieri.

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