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Southern California wildfire threatens college campus

10:16 PM, May 2, 2013   |    comments
Fire firghters set back fires to burn off dry brush to protect homes behind a hillsdie threatened by an out of control wildfire on May 2, 2013 in Newbury Park, California. Hundreds of firefighters are battling wind and dry conditions as over 6000 acres have already been burned northwest of Los Angeles. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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By William M. Welch, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES - 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 8,000 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. Local fire officials reported the fire was 10% contained Thursday night.

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.

More than 2,000 homes were threatened, Ventura fire officials said, but so far no occupied homes were thought to be destroyed. There was damage to 15 homes.

Kruschke 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 and the Camarillo Springs community, 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 900 firefighters were battling the blaze. Earlier, TV news helicopter video showed recreational vehicles parked at a storage facility on fire. Separately, a farm equipment complex went up in flames, triggering 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.

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