Winds ease but Calif. wildfire threat remains

Associated Press
Firefighters from Riverside, Calif. work to extinguish a brush fire at Point Mugu, Calif.,  Friday, May 3, 2013. A Southern California wildfire carving a path to the sea grew to more than 15 square miles and crews prepared Friday for another bad day of gusting winds and searing weather. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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Firefighters from Riverside, Calif. work to extinguish a brush fire at Point Mugu, Calif., Friday, May 3, 2013. A Southern California wildfire carving a path to the sea grew to more than 15 square miles and crews prepared Friday for another bad day of gusting winds and searing weather. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

CAMARILLO, Calif. (AP) — A huge Southern California wildfire carved a path to the sea and burned on the beach Friday, but firefighters got a break as gusty Santa Ana winds turned into breezes.

Temperatures remained high, but humidity levels were expected to soar as cool air moved in from the ocean and the Santa Anas retreated.

At the same time, the reversal of wind direction carried the risk of sending flames in new, dangerous directions.

"It could move just as quickly coming the other way," said Bill Nash, a Ventura County fire spokesman.

The wind-whipped fire erupted Thursday in the Camarillo area, threatening as many as 4,000 homes but only damaging 15, Nash said.

The 15 1/2-square-mile blaze was only 10 percent contained on Friday, and the work of more than 900 firefighters, aided by air tankers, was just beginning.

Evacuations were lifted overnight for neighborhoods as the fire moved toward the coast. California State University, Channel Islands remained closed, and new evacuations were called for coastal canyons, Nash said.

He did not know how many homes were immediately threatened but said the area mainly included ranches, orchards, camps and vacation homes rather than dense neighborhoods. Some expensive ridge-top and canyon homes also were in the path of the flames. Fire engine crews took up positions to defend the dwellings as helicopters made water drops.

The fire was 20 miles from Malibu, burning mostly in rugged mountains. It jumped the Pacific Coast Highway at Point Mugu and burned on a beach shooting range of Naval Base Ventura County.

The base ordered an evacuation of a nearby housing area as a precautionary measure and urged personnel in other Point Mugu housing to voluntarily leave.

The fire reinforced predictions that California is in for a bad summer fire season because dry winter and spring weather has left brush tinder-dry.

In addition, the California Department of Water Resources found the water content in the snowpack was just 17 percent of normal. The snowmelt is a vital water source for the state.

More than 3,000 firefighters were battling six major wildfires on Friday in California, the state fire agency said.

Fire crews have responded to more than 680 wildfires since the beginning of the year — some 200 more than average for the period.

Hot, dry Santa Ana winds gusting to 50 mph or more swept flames from the Camarillo-area fire toward the coast on Thursday.

Cooler, calmer ocean air was beginning to move ashore on Friday and could send the humidity soaring — the beginning of change that could even bring a chance of rain in the fire area by Sunday night or Monday morning.

The change pushed relative humidity at Camarillo from just 3 percent to 19 percent in an hour. The temperature hit 96 then fell into the low 80s. Smoke that had been streaming offshore began stagnating over the fire.

The National Weather Service canceled mountain wind advisories and predicted onshore winds of only 10 mph to 15 mph, with some 20 mph gusts.

The change had been expected to begin later in the afternoon but its early arrival was a potential mixed blessing for fire crews.

"They'll have to be on their toes as far as a wind shift. Now the fire will have to move the other direction," said Eric Boldt, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

That raised concerns of flare-ups along the path of the fire.

"The fire can jump up at any time and any place," Tom Kruschke, a Ventura County fire spokesman, said earlier. "There's that hot bed of coals out there covering thousands of acres."

Overnight, the fire roared down a canyon in Point Mugu State Park and through an evacuated campground, but firefighters managed to protect a nature center and other buildings.

"We had 20-, 25-foot flames. They were having a devil of a time making a stand," said Craig Sap, a state parks supervisor for the district.

"We had a moment of calmness, maybe a wind shift, and they were able to get a line around it," he said. "I don't think a single picnic bench burned."

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

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.

Elsewhere, crews expected to fully contain a 125-acre blaze in Sonoma County and a 200-acre fire in Glenn County on Friday.

Containment of a 55-acre Butte County fire was expected this weekend.

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