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May 4, 2013

California wildfire grows to 43 square miles

CAMARILLO, Calif. — It seemed that each time wind-driven embers sparked new blazes or a wall of fire leaped a Southern California hillside and came charging toward hundreds of homes, an army of firefighters was right there to either douse or direct the flames away from humanity.

As a result, the fire that broke out Thursday quickly moved through the Camarillo Springs area without destroying a single home.

Firefighters were hoping for the same success on Friday, as the fire raged out of control miles away near the coast.

Fifteen structures in the area 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles sustained some damage, and other homes in a wooded area were being threatened Friday by the blaze that had roared across 43 square miles. Some 900 firefighters using engines, aircraft, bulldozers and other equipment had it just 20 percent contained. Since daybreak, the fire has nearly tripled in size.

“That’s the way this fire has behaved, it has been a very fast-moving, feisty fire,” said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash.

To the north of the fire, parts of the Newbury Park community of Thousand Oaks are under mandatory and voluntary evacuations, Nash said.

Overnight, Nash said firefighters plan to stockpile resources along a road that lies between the fire and Malibu, protecting homes on the fire’s eastern front.

Of the thousands of homes threatened by flames, 15 have been damaged.

The good fortune of the Camarillo Springs area wasn’t the result of luck or clairvoyance by firefighters. It came after years of planning and knowing that sooner or later just such a conflagration was going to strike.

“When developers want to go into an area that is wild-land, it’s going to present a unique fire problem,” county fire spokesman Tom Kruschke said. “And you have to be prepared for that.”

Camarillo Springs, which was nothing more than rugged backcountry when homes began to go up there 30 years ago, was well prepared.

Its homes were built with sprinkler systems and fireproof exteriors from the roofs to the foundations. Residents are required to clear brush and other combustible materials to within 100 feet of the dwellings, and developers had to make sure the cul-de-sacs that fill the area’s canyons were built wide enough to accommodate the emergency vehicles seen on TV racing in to battle the flames.

“All of our rooftops are concrete tile and all of the exteriors are stucco,” said Neal Blaney, a board member of The Springs Homeowners Association and a 15-year resident. “There’s no wood, so there’s almost no place for a flying ember to land and ignite something.”

When the blaze broke out, Blaney said, volunteer emergency officers in the neighborhood gave the first alert to residents. As a result, when the flames got close, residents were ready to get out of the way of firefighters.

Residents in the area are also particularly vigilant about clearing brush from the hillsides next to their yards, Kruschke said. Normally, firefighters remind people in such areas to do that every June, but in Camarillo Springs people do it every few months. The work paid off this week.

The type of blaze that hit the area usually doesn’t strike Southern California wild-land until September or October, after the summer has dried out hillside vegetation. But the state has seen a severe drought during the past year, with the water content of California’s snowpack only 17 percent of normal.

That created late-summer conditions by May, and when hot Santa Ana winds and high temperatures arrived this week, the spring flames that firefighters routinely knock down once or twice a year quickly roared up a hillside — out of control.

“It’s just the beginning of May and we already have a 10,000-plus acre fire that’s burning intensely,” Kruschke said. “That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.”

On Friday, the huge wildfire stormed back through canyons toward inland neighborhoods when winds reversed direction. A new evacuation was ordered in a Thousand Oaks neighborhood along a two-mile stretch of road overlooking smoke-filled coastal canyons.

However, cooler, calmer ocean air was beginning to move ashore, raising humidity and even bringing a chance of rain by Sunday night, which should aid firefighters.

California State University, Channel Islands, remained closed, however.

After jumping Pacific Coast Highway 20 miles north of Malibu, the fire burned for a time on a beach shooting range at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

The blaze is one of more than 680 wildfires in the state so far this year — about 200 more than average.

On Friday, some 3,000 firefighters were battling a handful of blazes scattered around the state.

In Riverside County, a 4 1/2-square-mile fire that destroyed a home burned for a third day in mountains north of Banning. It was 65 percent contained.

Fifty-five miles away from Camarillo, in the hills above Glendale, a blaze broke out Friday afternoon, prompting the closure of several roads as it quickly charred 75 acres.

In Tehama County in Northern California, the size of a wildfire north of Butte Meadows was revised down from more than 15 square miles to 10 square miles, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

The fire, which was 10 percent contained, was burning in a remote area and wasn’t posing an imminent threat to any structures.

A fire in Butte County that covered 55 acres was expected to be contained this weekend.

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