Part of Pacific Coast Highway has been closed as crews try to get a handle on a Ventura County wildfire that has scorched at least 6,500 acres in a matter of hours.
California Highway Patrol announced about 12:45 p.m. Thursday that the coastal highway was closed in both directions between Yerba Buena and Las Posas roads because of the Springs fire, which flared along the Conejo Grade of the 101 Freeway in Camarillo.
All lanes of the 101 Freeway remained open, the agency said.
Hundreds of firefighters have made some progress on the flank of the wind-driven fire, Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash said. But the blaze remained uncontained because crews have been unable to get in front of it, he said.
Helicopters were being used in the attack, but fixed-wing aircraft had been grounded because of the weather conditions, the Ventura County Fire Department said.
Television footage showed numerous motor homes burning in a parking lot along with some type of agricultural building.
Firefighters are focused on protecting hundreds of homes as the Springs fire moves toward Newbury Park and the Camarillo Springs area, Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Tom Kruschke said. But officials are also preparing in case the blaze moves toward Pacific Coast Highway -- a possibility within "the potential of the fire," Kruschke said.
But with strong Santa Ana winds, low humidity and high temperatures -- not to mention the amount of fuel in the area -- Kruschke said it was hard to say where the flames might go.
"It's very unpredictable. Winds are swirling and twisting, and we don't know what way it's going to turn," he said. "We're kind of at Mother Nature's mercy at this point."
Evacuations were ordered for the Dos Vientos neighborhood of Newbury Park, the Camarillo Springs area of Camarillo, Cal State Channel Islands and the area south of Potrero Road to Pacific Coast Highway.
Newbury Park High School evacuated its campus shortly after 10:30 a.m. Thursday, citing air quality as the primary factor. While the fire was still burning far away from campus, a large number of students either did not show up or were picked up by their parents because of the fire, leading school authorities to shutter classes for the day.
The Red Cross has set up evacuation centers at the Thousand Oaks Community Park, 2525 N. Moorpark Road, and Camarillo's Calvary Community Chapel, 380 Mobil Ave.
Kruschke said crews were not immediately able to confirm structure damage, but said they were battling spot fires as the wind pushed embers into residential areas.
Stuart Seto, a specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said humidity had dropped significantly in the area – “from 80% down into the teens, and they’re getting lower.” That, coupled with “extreme” wind gusts, would likely make Thursday “the worst day as far as the fires,” Seto said.
“This is really dry,” he said. “The fire in Camarillo Springs really jumped up from nothing to 100 acres in no time at all.”
Winds also intensified during the day, Seto said, with gusts near the fire measuring about 47 mph.
Nash said the combination of wind and hot temperatures was a "perfect recipe for a fire."
"We advise anybody in the area to be prepared. Wildfires are very unpredictable -- we don't know what direction it's going to go," Nash said. "We really want people to be prepared. It's better to do it now before a sheriff's deputy is knocking on your door."
Residents watched warily, their packed cars at the ready, as the fire crept closer toward their homes.
“We’re packed and ready to go,” said Jan Moore. “But we’re just hoping they can protect this area here.”
Moore has lived in the Dos Vientos neighborhood for 10 years, but hadn’t decided whether to evacuate. Her street was mostly empty as wind whipped the trees and gardens. Heavy smoke hung in the area.
The police called Moore’s home to tell them to evacuate, but her husband was reluctant to leave. She stood in the middle of the street, looking dazed, as helicopters flew overhead.
“I feel a little numb right now,” she said.