SAN DIEGO -- Calmer winds helped firefighters gain ground Saturday against fires that have destroyed homes and raced through nearly 20,000 acres of northern and eastern San Diego County brush land.

A new fire at the Camp Pendleton Marine base left some evacuations in place.

Thousands of firefighters and fleets of water-dropping military and civilian helicopters planned fresh battles Saturday. Investigators, meanwhile, continued to seek the causes of the conflagrations that burned at least eight homes and an 18-unit condominium complex, emptied neighborhoods and spread fields of flame, smoke and ash that dirtied the air in neighboring Orange County and as far north as Los Angeles County.

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 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.

All together, the wildfires about 30 miles north of San Diego have caused more than $20 million in damage.


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Three fires continued to burn at Pendleton: A 15,000-acre blaze that began Thursday was 40 percent contained and a new fire Friday that quickly grew to 800 acres was 25 percent surrounded. A 6,500-acre fire that started Wednesday at a neighboring Navy weapons station and rolled onto the base and the city of Fallbrook was 65 percent contained.

At their peak, the fires prompted about 8,400 military personnel and their families to be sent home from various parts of the sprawling coastal base between Los Angeles and San Diego, but some housing-area evacuations were lifted, base spokesman Jeff Nyhart said.

The most destructive fires started in Carlsbad -- a densely populated coastal suburb of 110,000 people where a badly burned body was found Thursday in a transient camp -- and San Marcos, a neighboring suburb of 85,000 people where strip malls and large housing tracts mix with older homes whose residents cherish their large lots and country living.

The Cocos Fire, which hopscotched through San Marcos and neighboring Escondido, was 70 percent contained Saturday morning after burning 2,520 acres, the county reported.

As some evacuations were lifted, residents returned to their homes not sure what they would find.

"We thought for sure it was gone," said Lauren Frost, 31, whose family had left their Escondido home for the second time in two days Thursday and watched on television as flames burned across the street from their ranch-style house.

The Frost house survived, but two were reduced to rubble on Mount Whitney Street in Escondido, about 30 miles north of San Diego.