By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES - A fast-growing wildfire along the Pacific Coast Highwaynorthwest of Los Angeles nearly doubled in size Friday and wasthreatening more than 4,000 homes as crews battled strong winds,tinder-dry conditions and record-breaking temperatures.
TheSprings Fire had burned more than 18,000 acres of rugged, brush-coveredterrain by late afternoon and was 20% contained, the state's fire agencyreported. Forecasters said that 45-mph wind gusts would taper off and that cooling may begin by evening.
At midday, the temperature hit a record 96 in Camarillo, where the blaze began, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles.
Thousandsof residents had already evacuated the Ventura County fire, including118 families ordered from a premier Navy base because of heavy smokeafter flames jumped the scenic highway Friday morning.
The firebegan Thursday during the morning rush hour near U.S. 101, which is themajor commuter route into Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Afterreaching the coast overnight, the fire headed back inland Friday.
Thefire had damaged 15 homes and destroyed at least 25 outbuildings andother property by midday. Large animals and livestock were being takento the county fairgrounds.
In addition to 4,000 homes, thewildfire was threatening 100 businesses in its southwestern race towardMalibu. Officials said Friday afternoon that the famous beach communitywas not threatened.
No operations were affected Friday morning atthe sprawling Naval Base Ventura County, which was already operating onan "essential mission" basis. The base has a population of more than19,000 personnel and operates two runways, a sea-test range anddeep-water port.
The evacuation order only affected the SanMiguel housing unit for the Point Mugu air station. "This is due tosmoke, rather than fire, concerns," public affairs officer KimberlyGearhart announced on the base's Facebook page.
Tom Kruschke, Ventura County fire spokesman, said there iseffectively a vast field of coals behind the flaming edges of thewildfire that could flare up when winds return.
"We're going to be at Mother Nature's mercy," Kruschke said.
Hesaid high winds, high temperatures, low humidity, plus dry vegetationfrom the winter drought "adds up to a perfect storm for wildfire.''
CaliforniaState University-Channel Islands, a school with nearly 5,000 studentsthat opened in 2002, was evacuated. The Ventura County Fire Departmentsaid it had sent 20 fire engines to protect campus buildings andapartments on the eastern edge of the university.
Late Friday afternoon, residents were allowed back on campus, the Ventura County Sheriff's Office said.
Kruschke said that when firefighters first responded, the blazewas confined to 1 acre of brush by U.S. 101, near Thousand Oaks andCamarillo Springs, but that it quickly expanded because of dry weather,high temperatures and winds gusting up to 50 mph.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, he said.
Stateofficials closed a 10-mile section of the Pacific Coast Highway betweenLas Posas Road in Ventura County and the Los Angeles County borderbecause of the advancing flames.
More than 950 firefighters werebattling the blaze. Earlier, TV news helicopter video showed burningrecreational vehicles parked at a storage facility. Separately, a farmequipment complex went up in flames, triggering small fireballs as theblaze engulfed containers of pesticides.
Ken Pimlott, director ofthe state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire,said conditions are unusually dry for this time of year and create anenvironment in which fire, once triggered, spreads rapidly. He said muchof California is experiencing dry conditions not normally seen untilsummer.
"The faucet just turned on with fire activity,'' he saidin an interview. "We're going into a fire season in the beginning ofMay, with conditions we would normally see in mid- to late June.''
CalFiremoved crews through the night, some to fires in Northern California andothers into position around the Los Angeles area, he said.
A brush fire that erupted about noon PT Friday forced a 30-minuteclosure of eastbound Interstate 10 near Redlands, east of Los Angeles.Air support was called in to aid firefighters on the ground. About 20acres of hillside had burned before crews got the upper hand after about90 minutes.
About three hours later, a brush fire in Glendaleforced some evacuations and the closure of a freeway exchange, the LosAngeles Fire Department said. Helicopter and ground crews were battlingflames in the hills of Chevy Chase, near the 134 Freeway.
A firethat broke out Wednesday near Banning in Riverside County was 40%contained by Thursday, with nearly 3,000 acres burned, CalFire said.Several fires were burning in the northern part of the state, including ablaze in Tehama County that had burned 2,000 acres and was only 10%contained, according to the department.