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Calif. wildfire grows, threatens 4,000 homes

Posted at 5:00 PM, May 03, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-03 18:21:01-04

By Michael Martinez and Paul Vercammen, CNN

(CNN) -- A Los Angeles-area wildfire exploded from 10 acres to 10,000 acres in about 25 hours and threatened 4,000 homes Friday afternoon, fire authorities said.

The fire, which began Thursday morning, damaged 15 homes,15 outbuildings and five commercial properties, but none were destroyed and no one had been injured, authorities said.

Energized by dryness and strong winds, the wildfire raged for a second day and threatened 300 commercial properties and 50 outbuildings, authorities said.

The so-called Springs Fire was all but out of control in Ventura County. More than 950 fire and law enforcement personnel were able to contain only 10% of the blaze roaring near upscale houses and through the Santa Monica Mountains, the Ventura County Fire Department said.

Evacuations orders were in effect in several areas on Friday, but officials lifted such orders for the campus of California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo and for the Dos Vientos community in Newbury Park, authorities said.

Authorities closed a 10-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway just north of Malibu, the California Highway Patrol said Friday.

The highway between the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains is among the most scenic drives in the Los Angeles area, but smoke rose from at least one patch on the coastal mountains.

The fire began Thursday morning in Camarillo and traveled nine miles to the coast by Friday, fueled by by low humidity and gusty Santa Ana winds, authorities said.

Because of the smoke, ash and winds, people in affected areas were urged to be cautious and to avoid unnecessary outdoor activities, the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District said.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers described the fire as a bad omen for California because the wildfire season isn't supposed to start until August or September.

Mountain chaparral and shrubs are dry because Los Angeles has received only half of its normal rainfall the past two years, Myers said. The vegetation is now brown, though it should be green from winter rain, he added.

"Overall from a scale from one to 10, this fire's a two compared to what we are going to see this fire season -- millions of acres of wildland fires this season because the drought in the West is still in full swing," Myers said.

In fact, the Los Angeles area has received less than two inches of rain since January, making the bone-dry region "definitely ripe for these fires," said William Patzert, a NASA climatologist.

"Normally at this time of the year we have May gray and June gloom, but because of the extreme drought and lack of rainfall, the entire Southwest, including Southern California, is in an incendiary situation," Patzert said. "We just went up in flames."

Santa Ana winds are characterized as fast, dry blasts of air rushing down from the high desert and Great Basin. They typically blow in the fall, so this week's Santa Anas are unusual, Patzert said.

"What we call Santa Ana winds or devil winds," Patzert said, "are exceptionally dangerous."

Eight helicopters and six fixed-wing air tankers were dropping fire retardant on the blaze on Friday, Ventura County fire officials said.

Crews battling the fast-moving wildfires were not expected to get relief Friday.

"Gusty Santa Ana winds will continue to bring extreme fire danger to the area through Friday," the National Weather Service said. "Warnings are in effect for much of Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Friday afternoon, where there will continue to be a threat of rapid wildfire spread."

Paul Whyte of Newbury Park said he panicked when he found his home surrounded by flames.

Firefighters saved the home by diverting the blaze although nine acres of shrubbery in the area, he said.

"Your natural response is fear," Whyte told CNN's Piers Morgan. "I am glad my family is well and our house is still standing."

That blaze was one of two that firefighters were battling in the Los Angeles area. The other one was east of the city in Riverside County. In that fire, firefighters made progress against flames that consumed more than 2,950 acres, a fire official said.

The spread of the Summit Fire slowed Friday as crews contained 65% of the blaze, up from 40% from the previous day, the Riverside County Fire Department said.

CNN's Paul Vercammen reported from Newbury Park, and Michael Martinez from Los Angeles. Kyung Lah and Lateef Mungin contributed to this report.