PALOMAR MOUNTAIN — A stubborn fire on the dry slopes of Palomar Mountain continued to burn Tuesday as 1,245 firefighters, many of them from out of state, battled to contain the 9,200-acre blaze that has swept into inaccessible canyons and virgin timberland untouched by fire in a century.
Rob Bruggema, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry, said the fire, which began about 3 p.m. Saturday, was about 40% contained late Tuesday. "But we have absolutely no idea when the fire will be 100% contained," he added.
However, firefighters were thankful for Tuesday's slightly lower temperatures--even if they dipped by just a few degrees--and more of the same is forecast for today. Firefighters hope the gradual cooling will slow the flames that have raced up and down the numerous rugged canyons that have fed the fire.
Rising to Higher Elevations
Also, the blaze is traveling to higher elevations where the weather is cooler and there is more moisture, raising optimism among fire officials that the worst of the fire is behind them.
Authorities said they still do not know the cause of the blaze, which began Saturday at Quail Road and Rincon Ranch Road, southwest of Palomar Mountain near California 76.
On Tuesday morning, a CDF official reported that the fire was caused by someone burning leaves. However, this was later denied by other CDF and U.S. Forest Service officials.
Fire officials said the blaze was burning between the 3,200-foot and 5,000-foot elevations, the highest point of most peaks in the area.
In the lower elevations--where temperatures as high as 102 degrees were reported Tuesday--the fire was feeding on dry grass, brush and chaparral that explode into flames as the flames near.
As the fire has traveled up canyons to higher elevations, it has begun burning pine forests, virgin timberland where no fires have been reported since record-keeping began about 100 years ago, Bruggema said.
Cost Estimated at $368,790
As of Tuesday, CDF and Forest Service officials put the cost of fighting the fire at $368,790. Firefighters from the CDF and the Forest Service are directing the battle against the wildfire, which is burning in the Cleveland National Forest and the Mission Indian Reserve.
Late Tuesday afternoon, officials said that the blaze was traveling north of Palomar Mountain and that the Palomar Observatory was in no danger.
Electricity to the observatory was cut off by the fire at 1 p.m. Sunday, and observatory officials have turned to diesel-powered generators.
The observatory is being inundated with ash, so officials are making sure that the dome remains sealed to prevent damage. Washing of the 200-inch mirror, the heart of the observatory's largest telescope, had been scheduled for this week but has been postponed because of the ash, according to officials.
The fire's geographical location was put at west-southwest of Palomar Mountain, and its northern boundary is about two miles south of Eagle Crag and Marion Canyon.
Forest Service spokeswoman Susan Blankenbaker said there were no structures or people in the fire's path. So far, three residences and four detached buildings have been lost in the blaze, she added.
Fire officials have reported 27 minor injuries among the firefighters.
Community Called Safe
Twenty-five families were evacuated Saturday from the fire area, mostly along Bailey Meadow Road, Blankenbaker said, and 200 households in the Crestline area of Palomar Mountain were put on alert for possible evacuation Tuesday morning. Barring a sudden shift in the wind, authorities said late Tuesday, the community was no longer considered in danger.
Though temperatures were a few degrees below what they were the first two days of the blaze, temperatures in the fire area Tuesday remained high, pushing past the 100-degree mark. However, fire officials said they were glad the flames were not being fanned by the hot Santa Ana winds that scattered the fire from ridge to ridge Sunday and Monday.
"We're thankful that the Santa Ana winds have subsided. But we still have temperatures of 102 degrees that don't make the job any easier," Blankenbaker said.
Firefighters were attempting to contain the blaze by lighting backfires to consume the dry grass and brush and to establish a controllable fire line, Bruggema said.
"It's the only thing we can do at this point," he said. "The area where the fire is burning is so inaccessible that we can't send any fire crews in there. Backfires allow us to control the fire line and widen the firebreaks."
Firefighters are being assisted by 12 air tankers and three helicopters that crisscross the area during daylight hours. Besides the aircraft, about 136 engines from various federal, state, and local fire departments throughout San Diego County are at the scene. State and U.S. Forest Service crews from 10 states, including North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana and Florida, have been flown in.