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By Alex Dobuzinskis
CAMARILLO, California (Reuters) - A wind-driven wildfire raging along the California coast north 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 near threatened neighbourhoods.
A smaller blaze in Riverside County, 80 miles (128 km) 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 outbreak of brush and wildfires 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 U.S. West.
The largest of the blazes erupted about 6:30 a.m. beside the U.S. 101 freeway, less than 10 miles (16 km) inland from the Pacific coast, and quickly consumed 6,500 acres (2,630 hectares) of dry, dense chaparral and brush near the communities of Camarillo and Newbury Park, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Los Angeles.
Hot, dry Santa Ana 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. Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash said no injuries were reported.
News footage broadcast by 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.
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.
"The winds are a big factor in this firefight," he said. "Our concern is with pesticides and fumigants and things of that nature."
Ventura 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.
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 first-year psychology major at the school, recounting the ominous sight of flames creeping over a nearby hill as she and a 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 realized 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, spokesman Vance Vasquez said, adding that the base was not in immediate danger.
Evacuation orders were lifted for some areas on Thursday afternoon as the Santa Ana winds eased and cooler offshore breezes picked up, allowing firefighters to gain 10 percent containment of the blaze.
Officials said it would be up to administrators at the university to decide whether students could return on Friday, when temperatures were expected to reach into the 90s (30s C) again, complicating efforts to fully contain the fire.
"We're not going to call this thing caught until we have a good line around it and that line can hold the conditions that are presenting at the time," Ventura County Fire Captain Mike Lindbery said.
"There's a real good chance that right after the sun goes down, we could have heavy winds blowing once again," he said.
The separate blaze east of Los Angeles in Riverside County erupted on vegetation in a roadway centre divider and quickly swept across 12 acres (5 hectares) 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.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Tim Dobbyn and Peter Cooney)
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