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By AP Photo/The Ventura County Star, Troy Harvey
BY CHRISTOPHER WEBER The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — A wildfire fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds raged along the fringes of Southern California communities on Thursday, forcing the evacuation of homes and a university while setting recreational vehicles ablaze.
The blaze erupted during morning rush hour along U.S. 101 in the Camarillo area about 50 miles west of Los Angeles. It was quickly spread by the winds, which also pushed other damaging blazes across the region.
Kern sent to help
Kern County Fire Department crews are going to help the Ventura County Fire Department with the Springs Fire near Conejo Grade.
Kern's department reports the following have been sent:
* Two battalion chiefs
* Engine 314
* Engine 326
* Engine 36
* Engine 345
* Engine 356
* Helicopter 407 and Helitack Crew 407
* Rio Bravo Hot Shots
Kern County has also sent three overhead to the Panther Fire in Butte County.
A look at fires burning around California on Thursday:
• A blaze of more than 10 square miles that began along U.S. 101 in Ventura County was uncontained. It prompted the evacuation of neighborhoods in Camarillo and Thousand Oaks, along with the 5,000-student campus of California State University, Channel Islands. A store of highly toxic pesticides was burning on a farm near the university, prompting air quality warnings. Embers scattered along ridges and into neighborhoods abutting the brush lands and smoke streamed for miles. More than 500 firefighters were called in, aided by water- and fire retardant-dropping aircraft.
• A 12-acre grass fire in Riverside County was fully contained after destroying two homes and damaging two others in the Jurupa Valley area. Ten vehicles and a boat also burned. An elementary school and a gas station were evacuated. Fire officials believe it was started by a discarded cigarette.
• A 41⁄2-square-mile Riverside County fire that began Wednesday north of Banning was 40 percent contained after destroying one home. Nearly 700 firefighters and aircraft worked the fire in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. Most of the area was being mopped up but active flames remained in some areas. Two firefighters received minor injuries.
• A fire north of Butte Meadows in Tehama County spread to 7,000 acres of brush and timber. It was 10 percent contained and did not threaten any homes. Nearly 500 firefighters were battling flames.
• A 125-acre Sonoma County fire was 60 percent contained. It was expected to be surrounded Thursday by the efforts of more than 260 firefighters.
• A 110-acre fire in Glenn County was 5 percent contained. There were nearly 150 firefighters at the Elk Creek site but the steep terrain made it hard to reach.
• A 55-acre wildfire in Butte County was 50 percent contained and holding. More than 180 firefighters battled flames in the timberland.
Source: State and local fire agencies.
The evacuation orders included the smoke-choked campus of California State University, Channel Islands, which has about 5,000 students.
Flames quickly moved down slopes toward subdivisions, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. More than 6,500 acres — some 10 square miles — were charred, with no containment. A cluster of RVs in a parking lot was destroyed as flames moved close to a mobile home park.
There were no reports of homes burning, and no firefighter injuries were reported.
Fire officials said Thursday afternoon that a hazardous materials team will deal with a store of highly toxic pesticides that caught fire at a Laguna Farms property near the university, according the Ventura County Star. Area residents were warned to stay out of the smoke as much as possible.
More than 850 firefighters and law enforcement officials from multiple agencies worked to protect numerous homes around Camarillo Springs Golf Course and in a section of adjacent Thousand Oaks.
Air tankers were grounded for a time in the afternoon because of the winds, which gusted to 50 mph. Planes dropping water and retardant, along with six helicopters, were trying to create a perimeter and contain the fire.
The Santa Ana winds sent plumes of smoke and embers over the homes and strawberry fields to the south. At midday, farm sheds burst into flames in a clearing amid rows of crops.
The vegetation-withering dry winds out of the northeast caused humidity levels to plunge from 80 percent to single digits in less than an hour. Temperatures soared into the 90s in Camarillo.
The area is at the western edge of the Santa Monica Mountains, which abruptly descend to a coastal agricultural plain. It was possible the flames could burn all the way to the Pacific Ocean, about 10 miles from the start point.
For a while, the California Highway Patrol closed a 10-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway at Point Mugu. It was reopened at midafternoon around the time coastal weather stations recorded a localized return of moisture-bearing winds off the ocean, although hot Santa Anas kept blowing a few miles inland.
Mark Brewer, 52, was resting at an evacuation center Thursday afternoon after he and about 25 adults and children were evacuated from a county-run homeless shelter. Brewer could see flames coming down a hillside toward the building before he left.
"This is a part of being in Southern California, just like earthquakes," Brewer said.
Brewer, who lost his job in the mortgage industry a year and a half ago, managed to grab his laptop, some clothes and papers from the room he lives in before traveling to a Camarillo church, where evacuees were glued to televisions watching fire coverage.
About 100 miles to the east, two homes, a number of outbuildings and several vehicles were destroyed, and two other homes were damaged in a 5-acre grass fire that prompted the evacuation of an elementary school in Jurupa Valley, said Theresa Williams, a spokeswoman for CalFire.
The blazes could signal a difficult fire season ahead.
Officials with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise said Wednesday in their first 2013 summer outlook that a dry winter and expected warming trend mean the potential for significant fire activity will be above normal on the West Coast, in the Southwest and portions of Idaho and Montana.
Meanwhile, the California Department of Water Resources found the water content in the snowpack was just 17 percent of normal. The snowmelt is a vital water source for the state.
Elsewhere in California, crews made progress on a 4 1/2-square-mile fire burning in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains north of Banning, Riverside County fire spokeswoman Jody Hagemann said.
The fire, which burned a home Wednesday, was 40 percent contained with only sporadic flames showing.
In Northern California, a fire in a remote area of brush and timber north of the town of Butte Meadows grew to more than 3 square miles, with 10 percent containment, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. Several fires smaller than 200 acres burned in Sonoma, Glenn and Butte counties.
— Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Raquel Maria Dillon in Banning, and Robert Jablon and Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in Los Angeles.