125,000 people flee their homes as wildfires rage through southern California

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - California firefighters were battling wind-whipped wildfires on Friday, as some 125,000 people fled their homes in the San Diego area and police arrested at least two people on arson-related charges.

The cluster of fires comes as California enters its peak fire season amid its worst drought in decades. Officials worry it could be a particularly dangerous year.

Crews made some progress against the fires, which have scorched thousands of acres this week across Southern California. But they had only a tenuous grip on the so-called Cocos Fire, which was threatening the northern San Diego county communities of San Marcos and Escondido.

Late on Thursday, Escondido Police said they had arrested two teens, ages 17 and a 19-year-old, identified as Isaiah Silva, on arson-related charges after locating the pair near a mall. They matched descriptions by witnesses of two people trying to set fires in the South Escondido area.

Authorities elsewhere were also investigating how so many fires started about the same time and whether any were intentionally set.

"We all have suspicions, like the public does, when you have nine fires that started all over the county," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said.

At least one large home was burned to the ground in suburban San Marcos by the Cocos Fire. Television images showed towering flames closing in on other homes as residents scrambled to collect belongings and evacuate.

Twists of flames roared in the wind and across hillsides, filling the sky with plumes of black smoke. Fire engines with lights flashing moved along winding streets in neighborhoods of large Spanish-style homes.

The fires had destroyed seven homes and an 18-unit apartment building across San Diego county, authorities said. Seven other homes and two businesses were damaged.

The roughly 1,200-acre Cocos Fire was at least 5 percent contained by late Thursday evening, Cal Fire said, and fire officials were aided by weakened winds and cooler temperatures overnight. About 1,600 San Marcos residents were allowed to return home to specific areas, the sheriff's department said early on Friday.

However, California State University's San Marcos campus, which has some 9,000 students, and other areas remained under evacuation orders.

Elsewhere, a blaze that broke out on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base north of San Diego had charred some 6,000 acres.

A 400-acre fire in the coastal city of Carlsbad destroyed 18 apartment units, four houses and two commercial buildings and forced the evacuation of residents, along with the Legoland amusement park and 13 employees at the largely decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

That blaze was about 85 percent contained on Thursday evening and officials lifted evacuation orders for the city of Carlsbad. Crews checking hot spots found a badly burned body in a transient encampment. They could not immediately confirm the person was killed by the fire.

(Writing by Eric M. Johnson)