CAMARILLO, California (REUTERS) - A wind-driven brush fire raging north-west of Los Angeles prompted the evacuation of hundreds of homes and a university campus on Thursday as flames engulfed several farm buildings and recreational vehicles at the fringe of threatened neighbourhoods.
A smaller blaze in Riverside County some 80 miles to the east destroyed two houses and damaged two others before firefighters halted its spread, and at least five additional wildfires were burning in northern California.
The flurry of blazes marked a fierce start to a fire season in California that weather forecasters predict will be worsened by a summer of high temperatures and drought throughout much of the US West.
The largest of the fires erupted at about 6.30 am beside the US 101 freeway, less than 10 miles north of the Pacific coast, and quickly consumed 6,500 acres of dry, dense chaparral and brush near the communities of Camarillo and Newbury Park, Ventura County fire department officials said.
Stiff winds fanned the so-called Springs Fire southward toward the ocean for much of the day, prompting authorities to close a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. Department spokesman Bill Nash said no injuries were reported.
News footage broadcast by local KTLA-TV showed heavy smoke in the area and flames engulfing recreational vehicles parked near the evacuation zone. Later footage showed several farm sheds and other structures at the edge of an agricultural field going up in flames, apparently ignited by burning embers from one flank of the fire.
Fire department spokesman Tom McHale told KTLA that authorities were worried people could be exposed to toxic fumes that might be released from agricultural facilities that burn.
"The winds are a big factor in this firefight," he said. "Our concern is with pesticides and fumigants and things of that nature."
Fire department spokeswoman Lori Ross later confirmed that a number of homes, vehicles and farm buildings had been damaged, but she had no details about the extent of property losses. The cause of the blaze was under investigation.
Reverse 911-emergency calls were placed to residents of two subdivisions near Camarillo and scattered houses along the coastal highway telling them to flee the fire zone, an evacuation encompassing 855 homes and thousands of people, Ventura County sheriff's spokesman Eric Buschow said.
Evacuations were also ordered for the California State University at Channel Islands campus, according to a bulletin posted on the fire department website.
"It was nerve-wracking," said Shannon Morris, 19, a freshman psychology major at the school, recounting the ominous sight of flames creeping over a nearby hill as she and friend drove away from the campus in her car. "The whole sky was gray and the sun was like burning red."
Phil Gibbons, 57, a writer who works from home near the campus, said he realised the fire was close when he looked out his back window and saw heavy smoke blanketing his normally pristine view of a canyon.
"When I left, I was actually really, really frightened,"said Gibbons, one of 70 evacuees at a Camarillo shelter. "I thought it was only a matter of time that the houses (in his neighbourhood) would catch fire."
More than 500 firefighters were dispatched to battle the blaze, along with six water-dropping helicopters and several bulldozers. Airplanes equipped to drop payloads of fire-retardant chemicals were grounded by high winds and thick smoke in the area, officials said.
At Point Mugu Naval Air Station, a coastal installation south of Camarillo, all non-essential personnel on the coast south of the fire were sent home early as a precaution, spokesman Vance Vasquez said, adding that the base was not in immediate danger.
The second, separate blaze east of Los Angeles in Riverside County erupted on vegetation in a roadway center divider and quickly swept across 12 acres of brush, destroying two houses before firefighters managed to halt the advancing flames.
That blaze, apparently triggered by a discarded cigarette or some other hot object, was reported completely contained within hours. It destroyed five outbuildings, 10 vehicles and a parked boat, Riverside County fire spokesman Mark Annas said.
Two more homes were damaged and an elementary school and gasoline service station were evacuated, but there were no known injuries, he said.
A previous Riverside County brush fire that forced hundreds of residents from their homes on Wednesday was largely contained after scorching nearly 3,000 acres, officials said. Evacuation orders there were lifted as of Thursday morning.
In northern California, at least five smaller wildfires were reported on Thursday, state emergency management spokeswoman Tina Walker told Reuters.
A red-flag warning, declaring what the National Weather Service calls "extreme fire danger," was posted for much of Southern California on Wednesday as high winds swept the region, accompanied by soaring temperatures and low humidity.