Authorities burn down explosive-laden CA house

By Julie Watson

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 9 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

A house erupts in flames on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 during the controlled burn of a home in Escondido, Calif., that was so packed with homemade explosives that authorities claim they had no choice but to burn it to the ground. The house was rented by an out-of-work software consultant who allegedly assembled an astonishing quantity of bomb-making materials that included chemicals used by Middle Eastern suicide bombers.

Sandy Huffaker, Pool, Associated Press

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — In the end, there were no big explosions. No flames leaping from house to house. Just residents, watching anxiously as a house packed with explosives in their neighborhood went up in flames.

All of it, thankfully, without a hitch.

"I feel better," said Pat MacQueen, 76, standing on a porch Thursday as reddish-orange flames rose into the sky about a block away.

The blaze devoured the ranch-style house filled with so much homemade explosive material that authorities said they had no choice but to burn it to the ground. It popped and crackled. At one point, a deep boom from the fire echoed through the neighborhood.

"Oh, that's scary," said MacQueen, who moved to the San Diego suburb about 11 years ago.

While the immediate safety threat had passed, MacQueen and other residents were still haunted by the man who rented the house — George Jakubec. How did he amass so much explosive material and what did he plan to do with it?

Investigators are still trying to find those answers as Jakubec sits in jail on bomb-making and bank robbery charges.

Their immediate concern, however, disintegrated in less than an hour.

The plan was to stoke a fire so hot — at least 1,800 degrees — that it would neutralize the volatile chemicals before they could cause major explosions. Crews built a 16-foot firewall and covered it with fire resistant gel to protect the closest home at least a dozen feet away.

Firefighters and ambulances were on hand, just in case.

The fire began with puffs of smoke that rapidly grew larger, thicker and blacker. It billowed up through holes in the roof before flames overtook the house. The smoke rose about a half-mile into the sky.

The inferno was shown live on cable news networks and over the Internet.

Onlookers snapped pictures with cameras and cell phones. They "oohed and ahhed" over popping noises that authorities said were likely hand grenades and ammunition.

"Oh my gosh! Look at those flames. They are as high as those trees. That's scary," said Shirley Abernethy, 82, looking on from a porch about a block away at the height of the fire.

The flames quickly consumed the attached garage and then large chunks of the house. Within minutes, the wooden frame was exposed and nearby shrubs were burning. A remote-controlled fire sprinkler nearby was activated to keep the fire from spreading.

Nearly all of the home was destroyed in about 30 minutes.

"This has gone according to plan," said Jan Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

The plume drifted away from houses and toward Interstate 15, which authorities had closed for a time as a precaution.

Authorities had delayed the burn as they waited for an atmospheric condition known as an inversion layer — which traps warm air and could have held the toxic smoke close to the ground — to clear.

Afterward, as a plume of gray smoke rose into the sky behind her, Caldwell added proudly: "It's a good day for a fire."

The fire will likely smolder for much of the day, she said.

Officials said they received no reports of high levels of pollutants in the air. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said the toxicity levels were probably lower during the fire than they are when traffic flows down the nearby freeway.

"I don't think it could have gone any better to be quite honest," Gore said.

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