Southern California coast wildfire threatens 4,000 homes

CAMARILLO, California Sat May 4, 2013 12:04am BST

1 of 9. Resident Bryan Bonsant battles flames as the Springs Fire nears a neighbor's barn in Malibu California May 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Gus Ruelas

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CAMARILLO, California (Reuters) - A fierce, wind-whipped brush fire spread on Friday along the California coast northwest of Los Angeles, threatening several thousand homes and a military base as more than 1,100 dwellings were ordered evacuated and a university campus was closed.

A force of more than 900 firefighters had managed by daybreak to carve containment lines around about 10 percent of the perimeter of the inferno, which has scorched some 10,000 acres of dry, dense brush and chaparral since erupting on Thursday morning.

Several farm buildings and recreational vehicles were engulfed, and fire officials said 15 homes were damaged, along with five commercial properties. While 25 outbuildings were destroyed, no residential structures were lost and no injuries have been reported, authorities said.

Some 4,000 homes were considered threatened, with evacuations ordered for about a quarter of those residences, the Ventura County Fire and Sheriff's departments said.

Fire managers said they expected it would take until next Monday to achieve full containment of the conflagration.

The so-called Springs Fire and a flurry of smaller blazes around the state this week marked an abrupt start to a California fire season that weather forecasters predict will be worsened by a summer of high temperatures and drought throughout much of the U.S. West.

"We're seeing fires burning like we usually see in late summer, at the height of the fire season, and it's only May," Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Tom Kruschke told Reuters.

The temperature in Camarillo hit a record high of 96 degrees Fahrenheit by late morning on Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

Strong, erratic winds that complicated efforts to combat the Springs Fire through much of the first day abated somewhat Friday morning but seemed to be picking up again, Kruschke said.

In the meantime, wind conditions had improved enough to allow several air-tanker planes equipped for dumping payloads of fire-retardant chemicals to return to the air at dawn along with a fleet of eight water-dropping helicopters, he said.

Fire crew reinforcements were also called in.

STRETCH OF PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY CLOSED

The blaze, possibly ignited by a tossed cigarette butt, broke out at about 6:30 a.m. local time (1330 GMT) on Thursday beside the U.S. 101 freeway, less than 10 miles north of the Pacific coast, and quickly spread to the fringes of the communities of Camarillo and Newbury Park.

By Friday morning, flames had advanced to within a short distance of the ocean's edge in some places, forcing authorities to close several miles of Pacific Coast Highway.

At the Point Mugu U.S. Naval Air Station on the coast, all non-essential personnel were ordered to stay home for a second day as flames encroached on a firing range at the extreme western end of the base, far from the heart of the complex, spokeswoman Kimberly Gearhart said. She said no ammunition was stored at that location, bordered on two sides by coastline and wetlands.

But a base housing unit that is home to 110 active-duty military personnel and their families was evacuated on Friday because of heavy smoke, Gearhart said, adding there was no immediate fire threat to that vicinity.

Military aircraft were continuing routine flights between the base and a communications post on San Nicolas Island offshore, she said.

In mid-afternoon, residents were ordered to clear out of more than 900 homes in Hidden Valley, an enclave of ranches and estate-type properties southeast of Camarillo. Some 200 dwellings were evacuated earlier along the coastal highway and adjacent canyon roads, sheriff's Sergeant Eric Buschow said.

Previous evacuation orders for two housing subdivisions at the northern end of the fire zone closer to Camarillo were lifted, but those neighborhoods remained restricted to residents carrying identification, Buschow said.

California State University at Channel Islands campus, including student housing, was closed for a second day, the university said in a website posting, though official evacuation orders for the school were lifted.

A smaller blaze east of Los Angeles in Riverside County on Thursday destroyed two houses and damaged two others before firefighters halted its spread, and at least five additional wildfires burned in northern California.

Hot, dry conditions in Southern California were fed largely by Santa Ana winds blowing in from desert areas to the east.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Colleen Jenkins; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Gevirtz and David Gregorio)

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