Military aircraft joins backcountry wildfire fight

Backcountry residents evacuate as lightning-sparked fires threaten homes

The 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) joins other agencies fighting the wildfires burning in East County’s backcountry, CalFire Capt. Mike Mohler reported Wednesday.

The military will provide eight helicopters, a mix of CH-53 Super Stallions and CH-46 Sea Knights, according to a statement from 3rd MAW/Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Hundreds of rural East County residents were under mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday as more than 1,000 firefighters battled five lightning-sparked brush fires — three that are fully contained and two that are threatening to merge.

The roughly 400 evacuees, who were told to vacate their premises late Tuesday afternoon by the county’s reverse 911 system, live in the Ranchita and the San Felipe area off Highway 78, according to CalFire. Residents were invited to take shelter at Warner Springs High School.

Evacuation orders remained in effect Wednesday morning as CalFire reported that around 400 structures were threatened. Multiple road and highway closures in the Borrego Springs, Julian and Ranchita area were also in effect early Wednesday.

“Firefighters continue to make progress, though there is still a considerable amount of open fire line,” said CalFire Capt. Mike Mohler. “Extreme terrain and distance from roads are making access to fires difficult for ground resources.”

Mohler added that fire continues to threaten the 69-kilovolt electrical distribution lines in Grapevine Canyon that serve Borrego Springs, Warner Springs, and Ranchita.

CalFire said 1,453 firefighters are fighting the five fires from the ground and the air. The fires — collectively known as the Vallecito Lightning Complex — scorched 9,325 acres as of 7 a.m. Wednesday, according to the agency.

The first of the blazes was the Vallecito Fire, which charred 519 acres southeast of Julian since around 8 p.m. Sunday and was 100 percent contained as of Tuesday night, Cal Fire reported.

The three other fires —the Wilson, Stewart and Cooper fires — each erupted Monday afternoon, scorching ground northeast of Julian, near Scissors Crossing. CalFire reported that the Wilson Fire burned 5,000 acres and was 5 percent contained as of this morning; the Stewart Fire blackened 3,800 acres, with zero percent containment; and the Cooper Fire burned over only three acres and was 100 percent contained.

The fifth fire — the Wynola Fire — broke out Tuesday and scorched three acres in the Wynola area. It was 100 percent contained as of Tuesday night, CalFire reported.

Authorities said the Wilson and Stewart fires could merge Wednesday.

No structure losses have been reported, but two firefighters were injured, including one who suffered from heat exhaustion, according to CalFire.

The firefighters from CalFire and other departments assigned to the five fires have been supported by 77 fire engines, 48 fire crews, 14 helicopters, eight bulldozers and 28 water tenders, authorities said.

Residents with questions about the fires are encouraged to call CalFire’s incident information line at 619-590-3160 or follow the agency on Twitter, @calfiresandiego.

   
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