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California Wildfire Prompts Evacuations North of L.A.

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May 3 (Bloomberg) -- A wind-whipped wildfire, charring an area more than half the size of Manhattan, forced the evacuation of a college with 4,900 students and threatened 4,000 homes northwest of Los Angeles.

More than 925 firefighters battled the blaze known as the Springs Fire, which grew to more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers) south of Camarillo yesterday, said the Ventura County Fire Department. In Camarillo, California State University, Channel Islands was evacuated and State Route 1, known as the Pacific Coast Highway, was closed.

While wildfires are common in California, an abnormally dry winter has left the Golden State more vulnerable than usual, fire officials warned last month. More than 840 wildfires have occurred since January, about 320 more than the five-year average, according to the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department, known as Cal Fire.

“We have already seen a big increase in the number of fires that normally occur at this time of year, and summer hasn’t yet arrived,” Mark Ghilarducci, secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, said in a statement.

In the Springs Fire, 15 homes were damaged, though none destroyed, according to the Ventura Fire Department. Ninety fire engines, as well as helicopters and fixed-wing air tankers were fighting the blaze, the department said in a statement. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would reimburse the state for 75 percent of the cost.

Weather Warning

The National Weather Service extended a red flag warning for today in most of Los Angeles and Ventura counties because of dry Santa Ana winds, which blow desert air toward the Pacific coast. Gusts reached 45 miles per hour yesterday.

The winds brought humidity down to 5 percent or less, forecasters said, while daytime temperatures ranged to near 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). The weather warning is used to alert area residents and firefighters that conditions are ideal for rapidly spreading wildfires. Camarillo is about 50 miles from Los Angeles.

Firefighters yesterday closed a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu, near Los Angeles, to the Ventura County line. The six-mile closing, which will last until 6 p.m. tomorrow, forces travel between coastal Santa Monica and cities to the north such as Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Barbara to be rerouted inland.

Colorado Destruction

Besides the Springs Fire, at least five others dotted California yesterday, covering more than 10,000 acres (40 square kilometers). Fires across the state in 2008 killed 23 people. A year earlier, 1,500 homes were burned and nine people died in fires visible from space.

Large wildfires aren’t limited to California. Colorado suffered its most destructive fire season last year, with dozens of blazes fueled by drought-ravaged grass and beetle-killed timber. Flames destroyed at least 600 homes and charred more than 116,000 acres. Damage was estimated at more than $450 million, with the Waldo Canyon blaze, which consumed entire neighborhoods in the foothills around Colorado Springs, becoming the most expensive fire in state history.

Cal Fire has 4,700 full-time firefighters and foresters who are aided by another 8,700 seasonal and local workers. The state also uses prisoners to fight wildfires. About 3,850 inmates are housed in more than 40 camps statewide for fire duty, according to the latest inmate population data.

The figure was little changed from 2011, before Governor Jerry Brown shifted thousands of non-violent offenders to county jails under federal court orders to reduce crowding.

The Corrections Department said 82 crews, consisting of 1,093 inmates and 97 guards, were assisting in battling 14 fires across the state yesterday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael B. Marois in Sacramento at mmarois@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net