‘This is extreme’: Wildfires strike early, hard in Southern California

Story highlights

NEW: Fire official: At least 9 separate fires are burning in the region

Winds are dying down, though could pick up again, says mayor

Thousands ordered to evacuate; schools across region close

Carlsbad, California CNN  — 

Thousands of homes, a university campus, a nuclear plant, a Legoland and parts of one of the military’s biggest and busiest bases: All have been evacuated due to a rare confluence of fast-moving wildfires scorching Southern California.

Cal Fire Division Chief Dave Allen said nine fires have burned 9,095 acres.

The Golden State has seen many such blazes before. But these are different because they sprung up so quickly, spread so fast, and hit months before the traditional height of wildfire season, making them menacing in the short- and long-term.

CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray forecasts what the area might expect as the summer gives way to fall: “This is only going to get worse.”

San Diego County district supervisor Bill Horn said Wednesday evening that eight fires were burning in the region, seven of which popped up that day.

Investigators haven’t yet determined the cause of these fires. But Horn hasn’t seen anything like this – so many fires, so quick, all of them separate – in at least 20 years. That this is happening in May, not July or October, is even more confounding to him.

“I’m sure it could be by chance,” the clearly skeptical supervisor said. “… I just think there’s too much of a coincidence here.”

Whatever the cause – whether it’s a person or Mother Nature – the impact is already being felt.

Carlsbad alone has issued 23,000 evacuation notices. Thousands of students won’t have classes on Thursday due to the continuing threat; California State University-San Marcos canceled all activities through Friday, including commencement. Numerous roads have been shut down, while others have become clogged with people trying to escape.

Christina Echols of Oceanside hasn’t been told to leave – yet. But with her home sitting “in the middle of three fires” and a little over 7 miles from the San Onofre nuclear power plant, she knows that call could come at any moment.

“I am afraid of the fires right now,” Echols told CNN’s Erin Burnett.

She has plenty of company. Zeb Navarro, a CNN iReporter, said students at Palomar College are on pins and needles. Their concern isn’t so much with how the blazes are impacting finals at the San Marcos, California, school – which canceled activities on Wednesday night, though Thursday classes are still on – but because of how they might impact family and friends.

“Students are scared, and several of them are leaving,” Navarro said. “… Everyone is worried and praying that all is safe.”

Spate of fires causes concerns around region

Wildfires aren’t typically a problem in California until the summer, when things get even hotter and dryer.

But San Diego County got an unwanted early start Tuesday, when the Bernardo Fire broke out. At one point, that blaze prompted some 5,000 evacuation notices to be issued, though people were allowed back not long thereafter. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the county late Wednesday.

As Carlsbad police Capt. Paul Mendes said, “This is May. This is unbelievable.”

Throughout the region, though, the situation only deteriorated.

Steady winds and high temperatures – including daily record highs between 93 in San Diego and 99 in El Cajon, according to the National Weather Service – certainly didn’t help.

“This is extreme. This has gone from dry conditions to volatile conditions,” said one firefighter in Carlsbad, after using a torch to ignite backfire. “This isn’t something we don’t normally see until November or September.”

By noon, a second fire had erupted 20 miles away in Carlsbad, burning 100 acres and prompting the evacuation of thousands of people and a resort.

Then, another fire ignited around Camp Pendleton, a mammoth Marine base and training facility for multiple military branches, prompting evacuations of the O’Neill Heights Housing, the De Luz Child Development Center and Mary Fay Pendleton Elementary School, the Marines said.

Another blaze burned in the community of Fallbrook, adjacent to the military post, which is the West Coast boot camp for enlistees. Details on the fifth fire were not immediately available.

A precautionary evacuation was ordered at the nearby San Onofre nuclear power plant – which has been offline for two years – because of a wildfire. Southern California Edison spokeswoman Maureen Brown said “there is no safety threat,” though.

Among other locales, fires prompted the evacuations the Legoland amusement park in Carlsbad. One positive note: Carlsbad Fire Chief Michael Davis did say that, by mid-afternoon Wednesday, the forward progress of a main wildfire in his city had “stopped.”

He said a few hours later that winds had died down, giving a much appreciated reprieve to firefighters. But no one is breathing easy quite yet, especially with temperatures forecast to peak at 97 in San Diego on Thursday.

“The winds are starting to die down, but that does not mean that … they may not pick up again,” said Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall.

While there are no reports of fatalities or major injuries, San Diego County – which declared a local emergency Wednesday afternoon – reports at least 20 structures have been destroyed. Davis, Carlsbad’s fire chief, said eight homes and two commercial buildings have been lost in his city alone.

Asked which one of the numerous wildfires burning Wednesday night worried him the most, Hall couldn’t pick.

“They are all concerning,” the mayor said. “In everyone of them, there is property and homes involved. It is all a concern for us. They are all neighbors.”

Witness describes blaze as ‘incredible’

The ferocious fires made for sensational, disturbing viewing.

“Oh, my God! Oh, my gosh!” California resident Kristin Michalec said on a video she shared with CNN as she drove through raging flames in Carlsbad, near where she lives.

“It was so hard to see because of the thick smoke,” she later told CNN in an interview.

Rich Breeze saw a burning house explode in Carlsbad.

“No one hurt that I know of. Everyone was out of the house at the time,” Breeze told CNN iReport. “We were just right there when it exploded. It was just super intense.

“The fire was just incredible. It was beyond anything you’ve ever seen before,” he said.

Jay Ringgold, an information technology manager in Carlsbad, smelled the smoke easily. Santa Ana winds, also called devil winds, whipped up the fires.

“People were very surprised that it came that close to the business district. There are a lot of big companies there – near that is a brush area and homes,” said Ringgold, a CNN iReporter. “Everyone was panicking and wanting to get out of there.”

The fear is more such scenes could play out in the coming days. But not without a fight: There are scores of firefighters and law enforcement agents working the area, both to battle the various blazes and keep order amid all the closures and evacuations.

Residents’ jobs, according to officials, is to listen and act when called upon. That means not driving if that’s an option, and leaving home if so ordered.

“If you don’t need to be on the road, stay home,” said Horn. “And if we’ve asked you to evacuate, please evacuate.”

What to know about wildfires

Are you there? If you’re in a safe place, please share your photos and videos.

CNN’s Paul Vercammen reported from Carlsbad, while Greg Botelho wrote from Atlanta and Michael Martinez wrote from Los Angeles. CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton, Elwyn Lopez, Artemis Moshtaghian, Ed Payne, Karan Olson, Sonya Hamasaki and Matthew Stucker contributed to this report.