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California wildfire consumes 8,000 acres in five hours

By Paul Vercammen and Michael Martinez, CNN
May 3, 2013 -- Updated 0309 GMT (1109 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More personnel join fire effort
  • 15 homes damaged
  • Progress made against Riverside County blaze; conditions extremely dry

Newbury Park, California (CNN) -- A Southern California wildfire grew to 8,000 acres and is threatening 2,000 homes, authorities said late Thursday.

The blaze damaged 15 homes and caused the evacuation of other homes and the campus of California State University Channel Islands, fire officials said.

Winds reaching 25 mph aided the Springs Fire in Ventura County, and weather conditions grounded fixed-wing air tankers, allowing only helicopters to drop water, fire officials said.

The blaze was 10% contained Thursday evening, officials said.

The fire was one of two wildfires that firefighters were battling in the Los Angeles area. The other one was east of the city in Riverside County.

The Ventura County blaze prompted the evacuation of homes in Newbury Park, fire authorities said. More than 900 fire and law personnel were assigned to the growing conflagration that began near Camarillo, where Cal State Channel Islands is located.

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The university campus will remain closed through Friday, the school said.

Equipment included 96 fire engines, six helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft, authorities said.

Thick smoke blanketed neighborhoods as fires burned along ridge lines.

In the evacuated Dos Vientos neighborhood, firefighters took a preventive posture beside million-dollar, Spanish mission style houses with red tile roofs. Flare-ups rose 15 feet behind backyards, but no houses had caught fire by about noon local time.

Rounding up pets, important papers

Meanwhile, homeowners scrambled, gathered pets and loaded boxes with important papers and medicine.

Some owners of evacuated houses kept watch of their properties a few blocks away, wondering whether the fire would reach their homes. "We can pray and watch and listen," one woman homeowner told CNN.

"Anyone living in that area ahead of the fire really needs to prepare," said Mike Lindberry of the Ventura County Fire Department.

Winds reaching 25 mph, however, were fanning the wildfire, he said.

Aerial footage by CNN affiliate KTLA showed flames moving toward Point Mugu State Park along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Newbury Park resident Paul Whyte told CNN's Piers Morgan his home was spared, while nine acres of shrubbery were burned. "I am very fortunate."

Whyte was grateful for three firefighters who calmly protected his residence from tall flames. "It's very reassuring to meet people like that: People who are professional who know what they are doing. Put me at ease."

In a second wildfire on the other side of the Los Angeles area, firefighters were making progress against flames that consumed more than 2,950 acres in Riverside County, a fire official said.

The spread of the blaze seemed to slow early Thursday morning, and crews gained greater containment, now pegged at 40% with no growth in acreage, according to the state agency Cal Fire.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson said winds are the wild card in vanquishing the blaze, since they were picking up as the sun rose. But firefighters were feeling pretty good about their progress and were cautiously optimistic after a good night on the fire line, she said.

The Riverside County Fire Department said 425 firefighters were involved in what's being called the Summit Fire. Six air tankers dropped chemical retardants on the flames.

There were no exact numbers on how many people had been evacuated in the region late Wednesday, but authorities said a 200-unit mobile home park in Cherry Valley had been cleared.

They also said some residents in Banning were told to leave their homes. Banning is about 25 miles west of Palm Springs.

An evacuation center was opened at the Banning Community Services Center, officials said. There was also an evacuation center for small animals at San Jacinto Valley Animal Services, Cal Fire said.

Family home up in flames

The fire claimed at least one Banning house.

Joe Kiener said his mother bought the home in 1973 and lived there until her death last month.

"I didn't think I was going to lose the house at all," he said Wednesday. "I just knew that the fire was coming across at a rapid speed from east to west, and I was safe at the time."

But then the wind shifted.

"I grabbed the dog ... and put him into the car," making a quick getaway with a police escort, he said.

Perfect conditions for wildfires

The early start to the Western wildfire season has authorities concerned. Only a couple of inches of rain have fallen in Southern California since the start of the year, making the region as dry as it normally would be in the fall, when fire season is typically at its peak.

"It could be a very long, hot summer with a lot of potential for fires if they get started and if we continue to have the hot, dry weather," said Hutchinson, the Cal Fire battalion chief. "It's only going to get hotter and drier as we go through the summer."

The National Weather Service said a red flag warning was in effect until Friday evening. Forecasters called for wind speeds between 15 and 25 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph.

Forecasters say the combination of strong winds, low humidity and warm weather will create "extreme fire behavior."

Better get used to it, says Hutchinson.

"Fire season is here. Everyone needs to be alert for that. They need to be prepared for that."

Paul Vercammen reported from Newbury Park and Mike Martinez reported and wrote in Los Angeles. CNN's Ed Payne, Sonya Hamasaki, Cheri Mossburg, Phil Gast, Erica Henry and Irving Last contributed to this report.

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