The parking lot of the North County Fair Mall in Escondido looked like an outdoor stable Monday morning, as residents from nearby Ramona decamped to the relative safety of acres of asphalt.

The Parking Lot Ranch Photo: Sam Hodgson

Recreational vehicles sat next to horse boxes as dazed-looking residents rested in folding chairs, their faces covered with bandanas, paper masks and dishcloths.

A few hundred feet away, flames were threatening two gas stations and had reached commercial structures on the verge of Interstate 15. A construction site on the west of the 15 was engulfed by flames, though fire officials said this section of the fire was largely under control.

In the parking lot, a horse had gotten loose and was neighing and stomping. An old man in a baseball cap, his face smudged with ashes, took hold of the horses’ reins.

“Anyone know whose horse this is?” he said.

Bruce Gallagher, a Ramona resident who fled in his recreational vehicle, towing a car and a kayak, was wandering around the neighboring streets, clutching two large water bottles.

“The gas station’s closed, the mall’s closed,” he said. “I just need some fresh drinking water.”

Gallagher said his home is “probably gone by now.”

“The 2003 fire went right around us, but we understand that now it’s burning the path it didn’t burn before, and we’re in that path.”

See how today’s fires (in red) compare to 2003

Nearby, firefighters from Contra Costa County in Northern California were setting ablaze a densely overgrown section of verge by an access road to the freeway.

Jack Barton, a member of the strike team from Contra Costa County, explained that it is better to set the verge ablaze and form a buffer between the main fire and a nearby mall.

As he spoke, the wind huffed at the flames, sending them dozens of feet into the air. Even the firefighters jumped back, looking alarmed at the force of the winds.

Barton said he’s never seen a fire this serious before, but he praised the organization of the local fire officials.

“Getting the information, getting the contact points down here, that all goes relatively smooth,” Barton said.

Will Carless

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