LOS ANGELES – The Southern California wildfire season got off to an ominous start Thursday with a massive brush fire in Ventura County that officials fear is just a preview of dangerous months ahead.
The fire showed in dramatic fashion how the region’s record dry conditions and lack of rainfall can quickly combine with fierce Santa Ana winds to produce widespread havoc.
Firefighters said the dry winter and spring left the brush much more combustible than they’ve ever seen it at this time of year. Weather forecasters said the Santa Ana wind conditions Thursday produced gusts topping 60 mph. Those are speeds significantly above normal for May and more common for the fall, when the Santa Anas are at their strongest.
The blaze erupted during morning rush hour along U.S. 101 in the Camarillo area about 50 miles west of Los Angeles. Thousands fled from several communities Thursday morning as flames consumed bone-dry terrain, devouring more than 6,500 acres in just a few hours. The evacuation orders included the smoke-choked campus of California State University, Channel Islands, which has about 5,000 students.
Humidity levels dropped to as low as 4 percent. Walls of flames – some topping 20 feet – bore down on homes and licked up against the side of the 101 freeway. Temperatures topped 90 degrees.
The heavy winds forced officials to ground air tankers battling the so-called Springs fire, putting more pressure on weary firefighters. Helicopters continued with water drops, and ground crews made several tense stands that prevented flames from getting into subdivisions in Camarillo and Newbury Park.
“It’s very unpredictable. Winds are swirling and twisting, and we don’t know what way it’s going to turn,” said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Tom Kruschke.
With only about 5 inches of rain since last July, Los Angeles is headed toward its fourth-driest year since 1877.
Since Jan. 1, downtown L.A. has experienced less than 2 inches of rain. Normal for this time of the year is more than 11 inches of rainfall.
“We are at 17 percent of normal. That is exceptional,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Our hope for a drought-buster was dashed and an early fire season was guaranteed.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which protects about a third of the state, said that it had dealt with 150 more blazes this year than during the same period in 2012.