A fast-moving wildfire northwest of Los Angeles, fanned by strong Santa Ana winds, forced the evacuation of homes and a college campus with 4,900 students.
More than 500 firefighters were battling the blaze that had grown to more than 6,500 acres (2,630 hectares) south of Camarillo, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. Officials ordered the evacuation of California State University, Channel Islands, and closed State Route 1, known as the Pacific Coast Highway, as the fire approached.
While summer wildfires are common in California and other western U.S. states, officials have warned that an unusually dry winter left the Golden State more vulnerable than usual. More than 680 wildfires have occurred statewide since January, about 200 more than average for this time of year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Ninety-six fire engines, six helicopters and five bulldozers were fighting the blaze, the Ventura County Fire Department said in a statement.
The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for Southern California as dry Santa Ana winds, which blow toward the coast from the desert, were expected to reach as much as 45 miles per hour (72 kilometers per hour). The weather warning is used to alert area firefighters and communities that conditions are ideal for rapidly spreading wildfires. Camarillo is about 50 miles from Los Angeles.
A series of fires that spread across the state in 2008 killed 23 people. A year earlier, 1,500 homes were burned and nine people died in a string of fires that were visible from space.
Large wildfires aren’t limited to California. Colorado suffered its most destructive fire season in 2012, 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 of forest. Damage was estimated at more than $450 million, with the Waldo Canyon blaze, which consumed entire neighborhoods in the foothills of Colorado Springs, becoming the most expensive fire in state history.
California often uses prison inmates to help fight wildfires. Corrections Department officials said the state expects to have about the same number of inmates available this year as they did prior to Governor Jerry Brown’s program to shift thousands of non-violent offenders to county jails in order to reduce the state’s prison population as ordered by federal courts.
About 3,850 inmates are housed in more than 40 camps across the state, available to fight fires, according to the latest inmate population data. In first week of May 2011, before Brown’s program began, the state had 3,988.
The Corrections Department said 82 fire crews, consisting of 1,093 inmates and 97 guards, were assisting in 14 fires across the state yesterday.
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