A bulldozer helps clear a hill near a fire in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Thursday.
(Photo: Nick Ut, AP)
LOS ANGELES (USA TODAY) -- A fast-growing wildfire, whipped by gusty winds and extremely dry conditions, forced evacuation of neighborhoods and a state university and closed a stretch of the coast highway northwest of Los Angeles on Thursday.
More than 6,500 acres of rugged, brush-covered terrain were burned by the fire that began during the morning rush hour near a major highway and commuter route into Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.
California State University-Channel Islands, a school with nearly 5,000 students that opened in 2002, was evacuated. The Ventura County Fire Department said it had sent 20 fire engines to the campus to protect buildings.
Tom Kruschke, Ventura County fire spokesman, said flames were approaching apartments on the eastern edge of the university campus.
He said that when firefighters first responded, the blaze was confined to one acre of brush by a major highway, U.S. 101, near Thousand Oaks, but that it quickly expanded in size due to dry weather, high temperatures and winds gusting up to 50 miles an hour.
Dry desert winds known as Santa Ana winds were blowing heavy smoke westward but by evening appeared to be calming. Temperatures, which reached the upper 90s, began to drop as the sun fell, and relative humidity, as low as 2% for much of the day, climbed significantly, giving firefighters a break.
"This is the problem we have: high winds, high temperatures, low humidities, plus the (vegetation) fuels that have been suffering from the drought we've had this winter,'' Kruschke said. "This all adds up to a perfect storm for wildfire.''
Cause of the fire is under investigation, he said.
State officials closed a 10-mile section of the Pacific Coast Highway between Las Posas Road in Ventura County and the Los Angeles County border because of the advancing flames.
More than 850 firefighters were battling the blaze, which was still raging uncontained as darkness approached. Earlier, TV news helicopter video showed recreational vehicles parked at a storage facility on fire. Separately, a farm equipment complex went up in flames, triggereing small explosions of fire as the blaze engulfed containers of pesticides.
Ken Pimlott, director of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said conditions are unusually dry for this time of year and create an environment in which fire, once triggered, spreads rapidly. He said much of California is experiencing dry conditions not normally seen until summer.
"The faucet just turned on with fire activity,'' he said in an interview. "We're going into a fire season in the beginning of May, with conditions we would normally see in mid- to late June.''
Cal Fire moved crews through the night, some to fires in Northern California and others into position around the Los Angeles area, he said.
A fire that broke out Wednesday near Banning in Riverside County was 40% contained by Thursday, with nearly 3,000 acres burned, Cal Fire said. Several fires were burning in the northern part of the state, including a blaze in Tehama County that had burned 2,000 acres and was only 10% contained, according to the department.
William M. Welch, USA TODAY