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Palomar Fire Rages Unchecked : 8,000 Acres Blackened; Cooler Weather to Help

October 06, 1987|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

Dry brush continued to feed a major fire on the southwest slopes of Palomar Mountain late Monday despite efforts of 1,000 firefighters mobilized to fight San Diego County's largest blaze of 1987.

The fire, which started Saturday afternoon, had burned more than 8,000 acres by late Monday, and was moving both northeast and northwest in rugged mountain terrain north of Pauma Valley, consuming timber and brush that last burned more than 50 years ago. Only 20% of the fire near the initial starting point along California 76 had been contained by Monday night and officials had no estimates on when they would have total containment, Audrey Hagen, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry, said.

The fire destroyed three homes and three other structures on Sunday. No new structures were reported burned on Monday, Hagen said, although several on avocado and citrus ranches remained threatened. In addition, upwards of 100 persons were still unable to return to their homes on the mountain.

The fire had not yet threatened the Palomar Observatory, which is at 5,000 feet and about five miles from the easternmost point of the blaze, Hagen said. The only two roads into the Palomar area--county roads S-6 and S-7--were closed to all persons except residents, a California Highway Patrol dispatcher said. California 76, running east-west at the foot of the mountain, remained open. Telephone and electrical service remained out or sporadic in the Palomar Mountain area, as repair crews waited for forestry officials to allow them to enter the fire zone.

Cooling Trend to Grow

A cooling trend that began in San Diego coastal areas on Monday was forecast to become more pronounced today and Wednesday, bringing gradually higher humidity to mountain areas and lessening the Santa Ana winds that helped speed the fire over the weekend, National Weather Service forecaster Dan Atkin said.

Two other county fires that started over the weekend were reported contained Monday, one a 500-acre blaze along Highland Valley Road in the San Pasqual Valley between Rancho Bernardo and Escondido, the other a 2,100-acre fire near Lake Wohlford and Valley Center roads.

Fire officials were positioning some of their 63 engines Monday night in the brush of the upper reaches of the 1,300-acre Agua Tibia Ranch to try to contain the northwestern branch of the fire, ranch manager Bud Bradford said. The ranch contains the state's oldest orange tree, which was planted in 1868 from California's first commercial grove near what is now downtown Los Angeles.

Bradford said none of the ranch's extensive citrus and avocado groves is threatened, nor is the special orange tree.

"This is just a very sad situation," said Bradford, echoing emotions expressed by many of the region's several thousand residents, many of whom work in the groves. "In some of these canyons, there's no way to stop the fire . . . there are no firebreaks."

Despite repeated drops of fire-retardant chemicals Monday from 12 tanker aircraft, the northeastern point of the fire continued to consume brush on the southern edge of Palomar Mountain State Park, which was evacuated Sunday. The Palomar Mountain race/human relations camp of the San Diego Unified School District was closed as well, forcing several hundred sixth-graders from Mann Middle School and Fremont Elementary School to attend regular classes Monday and forgo the planned week in the wilderness. School officials said they would reschedule the two school groups for sometime next spring.

Many Telephones Out

Telephone service remained out for about 100 residents on Palomar Mountain with the 742 prefix, Pacific Bell spokesman Tom McNaghten said. About 600 Valley Center residents with the 749 prefix, whose service had been disrupted over the weekend as well, should have their service restored by sometime today after telephone crews finish laying new cable, McNaghten said.

But he said the company will be unable to begin replacing burned cable on Palomar until forestry officials determine that the area is safe for repair crews to enter. He said helicopters will be used to replace about 14 miles of cable in the rugged area.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. crews also will wait for clearance from fire officials before entering Palomar to restore power to several hundred residents, spokeswoman Karen Duncan said. She said numerous power poles have been burned. Both SDG&E and Pacific Bell set up special portable equipment on Monday for the county sheriff, water company and other essential services.

Weather forecaster Atkin offered some hope Monday for the firefighters. He said that the high-pressure zone inland had dissipated, to be replaced by a low-pressure zone and high pressure offshore--bringing a cooling ocean breeze onshore. The inland high pressure had been responsible for the weekend Santa Ana and its dry winds, which helped promote rapid spread of the fires.

Temperatures to Drop

"We've got a weak onshore flow which will get stronger by Wednesday, especially in San Diego County," Atkin said. He said temperatures will continue to drop significantly from weekend record highs.

Monday's temperature at Lindbergh Field in San Diego was 79, 18 degrees below Sunday's record high of 97 and 25 degrees below the 104 mark set on Saturday.

Today's high is predicted to be 75, according to WeatherData, which provides forecasts for The Times.

Inland highs as well will continue to drop, he said. While Palomar Mountain did not report temperatures on Sunday or Monday because of the emergency situation, Atkin said that mountain weather will show a definite cooling trend all week, with few if any winds other than a weak ocean breeze.

Bradford at Agua Tibia Ranch said the wind shifted to the west late Monday, bringing some hint of cooler, more humid weather.

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