California wildfire burns about 500ha of land, forces evacuations

 Fire photographer Tod Sudmeier gets hit with flying embers from strong winds at the Solimar brush fire.
Fire photographer Tod Sudmeier gets hit with flying embers from strong winds at the Solimar brush fire.PHOTO: REUTERS

VENTURA, Califorina (Reuters) - Firefighters on Saturday (dec 26) had gained the upper hand on a wildfire north-west of Los Angeles that burnt about 1,240 acres (500ha) of land, forced the closure of parts of a major highway and led to evacuations, fire officials said.

More than 600 firefighters battled the blaze in the Solimar Beach area of Ventura County, and were able to draw containment lines around 60 per cent of the conflagration by Saturday evening, county fire officials said.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, they said, and there were no reports of damage to structures.

The flames triggered the closure of parts of United States Highway 101, though both northbound and southbound lanes of the major roadway had reopened to traffic by late afternoon, officials said.

No structures have been damaged by the fire, but nearby Union Pacific rail lines were closed for a period and the fire is a threat to oil, gas and power lines.

The northbound side of the highway, a major roadway in the region, reopened around 2pm local time, according to state transportation officials, and the southbound side was moving 30 minutes later according to a Reuters witness.

At 1.30pm local time, an Amtrak train heading north and filled with passengers passed near Solimar Beach, according to the same Reuters witness.

"Even if we do open up the roadways, it's still not a contained fire," Ventura County Fire Department Chief Norm Plott told reporters earlier in the day. "It's a very dynamic fire. We're not quite out of the woods yet."

It will take at least three days to get it under control, fire officials said. The cause of the fire was still under investigation.

Helicopters and fixed-wing tankers were helping to battle the blaze with water drops.

Fire officials had earlier reported that parts of the Pacific Coast highway also were closed, but a fire department spokesman said only a portion that overlaps the 101 was closed. Ventura is about 105km north-west of Los Angeles.

The fire started at around 11pm local time on Friday near Ventura, and strong winds as high as 80 kmh and dry vegetation caused it to grow rapidly, fire officials said.

At around 2am local time on Saturday in a video posted on Facebook, Ventura County Fire Department Captain Steve Kaufman said the fire was near the beach, "bumping up against the roadway. We're getting a bunch of embers in Solimar east".

The Solimar Beach community, with 50 to 60 homes, and a nearby campground were under a mandatory evacuation order, while a voluntary one had been issued for the nearby Faria Beach community, where there are 30 to 40 homes, fire officials said.