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'Monster' California wildfire reaches ocean, pushes toward Malibu

1:10 PM, May 3, 2013   |    comments
A fire engine is parked on Pacific Coast Highway as the Springs Fire burns in the hills at Point Mugu State Park on May 3. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
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(NBC NEWS) -- Southern California firefighters battled back a series of sprawling, brush-fueled wildfires on Friday, including one that had blazed a trail to the beach in Ventura County overnight and was pushing toward the upscale city of Malibu, officials said.

At least six fires of various sizes have flared up as high temperatures, low humidity and brittle brush have left the state a veritable tinderbox over the last two days.

The so-called Springs Fire, made worse by howling Santa Ana winds and unusually dry vegetation, was within "seven or eight miles" of Malibu at 2 a.m. local time (5 a.m. ET), Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash said.

"We've got hot, dirty, unglamorous firefighting work going on right now, guys with shovels trying to scratch out lines on the ground," Nash said early Friday. "We've got those guys on these steep hillsides in the dark with nothing but the light of the fire and a flashlight."

Dry winds from offshore were expected to bring gusts of 40 to 50 miles per hour to the Southern California region on Friday, with the winds expected to drop and temperatures to cool into the high 60s later in the day, according to the Weather Channel. Warnings remained in effect as winds stoked the flames, the National Weather Service reported.

The Springs Fire grew to 10,000 acres and was 10 percent contained as of early Friday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.

An eight-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway was shut down for a time on Thursday night as bright orange flames raced down scrubby hillsides toward the Pacific Ocean.

"We have conditions that are very dramatic, very dangerous for firefighters. This fire is growing," said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Tom Kruschke. "We are asking members of the public to be very aware: This is very dangerous. This is still a moving fire. If you were asked to evacuate, it will be a while before you are allowed in. And if at one point you are uncomfortable, please leave the area. It's not safe to stay."

Evacuations took place Thursday, and as of Friday morning 15 homes had been damaged. More than 2,000 homes and 100 commercial properties were under threat from the fire, Nash said, adding that the numbers could grow as Friday wore on.

Though the more than 925 firefighters on the scene got a brief overnight reprieve as the humidity jumped and winds died down, conditions were expected to worsen after sunrise on Friday.

Firefighters expected to receive help from tankers and helicopters in the air after the sun rose on Friday, according to a release from the Ventura County Fire Department.

Santa Ana winds, which blow torrid air from the desert toward the Pacific Ocean, were at a sustained 40 mph Thursday and were expected to return on Friday, though perhaps to a lesser degree, Nash said. 

Complicating the situation is the extremely dry plant life left from a season in which only about five inches of rain fell, he added.

Friday "may be the hottest day of the week, and the humidity we do expect to plummet," Nash said. "We're faced with a situation right now where the vegetation on the hillsides, the moisture level is what we typically see in August."

The cause of the fire remained under investigation Friday. There had been no lightning or other natural fire-starting phenomenon in the area when the blaze began, Nash said.

In Riverside County, hundreds of firefighters had begun to gain control of a wind-lashed 3,000-acre wildfire that consumed one home and led to the evacuation of hundreds of others.

Live television pictures late Thursday showed a home engulfed in flames and massive plumes of smoke rising above the burn zone. Fire officials on the scene reported no injuries.

Residents in the Dos Vientos area were ordered to evacuate at about 9:45 a.m. local time on Thursday, according to the Ventura County Sheriff's Office. Fire officials told residents they could return home shortly after 6:30 p.m.

The Riverside County fire, dubbed the Summit Fire, remained at just under 3,000 acres Friday morning and was about 65 percent contained, according to a Cal Fire incident report. Firefighters worked to improve containment lines around the raging blaze that threatened homes on Wednesday, but one building had been destroyed.

Two of the 650 firefighters trying to tame the blaze sustained non-life-threatening injuries, according to the report.

Additionally, more than 1,000 firefighters were battling a third major wildfire, designated the Panther Fire, Thursday night in rugged timberland in Northern California -- in Tehama County about 30 miles east of Chico.

Gusty down-canyon winds were driving the 10,000-acre blaze, according to Cal Fire. It was 10 percent contained Thursday night, when the last report was issued.


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