SAN FRANCISCO — As cooler weather helped firefighters make gains against a string of dangerous wildfires raging in Southern California, police announced an arrest in connection with one of the blazes that broke out in San Diego County this week.
The hot, dry Santa Ana winds diminished Friday, allowing firefighters to make progress containing the blazes. Sometimes called "devil winds," the Santa Anas are often associated with wildfires.
The largest of the six, the Las Pulgas Fire in San Diego County, has burned 15,000 acres and was 40% contained by Saturday.
Altogether, the wildfires about 30 miles north of San Diego have caused more than $20 million in damage.
On Saturday crews battled a new fire northwest of San Diego near Santee Lakes Regional Park. It quickly grew to cover 30 acres, the Cal Fire San Diego's public affairs bureau tweeted. Fire fighters were able to stop the forward spread of the fire and it was contained by the afternoon, the agency said.
Alberto Serrato, 57, pleaded not guilty Friday to an arson charge in connection with one of the smaller fires, a 105-acre fire in suburban Oceanside that started Wednesday and is now fully contained.
Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney's office, said witnesses saw Serrato adding dead brush onto smoldering bushes, which flamed up. He has not been connected to any other fire, Sierra said.
Oceanside Police Lt. Sean Marshand said Serrato is believed to have added fuel to the fire but not to have started it. "Unfortunately we don't have the guy that we really want," he said.
He remained jailed Friday, and Sierra said she didn't know whether he had an attorney.
Other fires in the area include:
• Cocos Fire, San Diego County, 2,520 acres, 70% contained
• Bernardo Fire, San Diego County, 1,548 acres, 95% contained
• Poinsettia Fire, San Diego County, 600 acres, 90% contained
• Tomahawk Fire, San Diego County, 5,400 acres, 79% contained
• San Mateo Fire, San Deigo County, 800 acres, 25% contained
At their peak, the fires prompted about 8,400 military personnel and their families to be sent home from various parts of sprawling Camp Pendelton, a 125,000-acre Marine Corps base on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. Many of the housing-area evacuations have been lifted, base spokesman Jeff Nyhart said.
"My whole life is here and I lost everything," Dave Roberts of Harmony Grove, Calif. told KGTV-TV.
He built the home 20 years ago by hand. It was destroyed in the Coco fire.
Still, he and his wife, Sherri, weren't giving in to disaster.
"Between my family and friends and relatives and everybody," he said in a choked voice. "I'll make it somehow."
"Everything is gone," Jack Whitling said of his aunt's home. "The fire just blew down the hills. We managed to keep my mom's house and the house next door."
Whitling, who has lived in the Escondido neighborhood, told KCAL-TV that he had never seen a fire so close or of such intensity.
It could take months to find the causes of the blazes.
"Do people have suspicions? Yes," said police Capt. Neil Gallucci, noting there has been no lightning that could explain the blazes. "But can we confirm them? The answer is no."
As of Thursday, for the first time this century, the entire state of California is in a severe drought — or worse. The three worst levels of drought are severe, extreme and exceptional: 100% of the state is now in one of those three categories (23.31% severe, 51.92.% extreme and 24.77% exceptional).
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has already has responded to more than 1,500 wildfires this year. In an average year, that number would be about 800.