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.
Thousands fled from several communities Thursday morning as flames consumed bone-dry terrain, devouring more than 6,500 acres in just a few hours. Humidity levels dropped to as low as 4%. 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% 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.
Forecasters doubt the region will get any significant rainfall until late in the year. So they are counting on the onset of the marine layer that produces "May gray" and "June gloom" cloud conditions. A heavy marine layer could bring some moisture, but they still expect a bone-dry summer and early fall.
"By the time we hit October, it's always a race between whether the rains come first or the really strong Santa Anas come first," Patzert said.
On Thursday, Santa Ana winds from the east pushed the fire through the Santa Monica Mountains toward the Pacific Ocean. Cooler on-shore coastal winds appeared to slow the Springs fire as it raced west, though firefighters worried those winds could push the fire in unexpected directions.
Local officials said they were surprised the fire moved so fast just a few miles from the cooler breezes of the ocean.
"We don't often see fires at this time of year, and definitely not here," said Sgt. Barbara Payton of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. "We aren't that far from the ocean, so it just doesn't get that hot here."
The premature fire season also has California energy suppliers worried about the potential of raging fires knocking down transmission lines.
The absence of the troubled San Onofre nuclear plant — which has been closed for more than a year due to equipment problems and probably will remain closed through the summer — means that the region will need to import more energy from elsewhere. Those supply routes could be threatened by fires in areas where the lines run, said Stephanie McCorkle, a spokeswoman with the California Independent System Operator, which oversees most of the state's power grid.
"This is shaping up to be a very bad start to the fire season," McCorkle said.
As the fire continued Thursday evening, officials were still tallying the damage. The Springs fire destroyed several RVs, out buildings and some agricultural structures. A second small fire in Riverside County burned four homes.
In Newbury Park, Jim Loper, 46, and Robert Ticktin, 51, watched from an evacuation area as firefighters battled to keep the flames out of their neighborhood. They stood at a sheriff's command post at Dos Vientos Community Park in Newbury Park. The park's name — meaning two winds in Spanish — was appropriate, as Santa Ana winds mussed the landscape and bedeviled firefighters.
Loper had gone through some large wildfires when he lived in Altadena, so the drill wasn't new.
"You pack the things that are irreplaceable," Loper said. When he left his home, he said, "there were flames on all different sides surrounding our house."
Ticktin said just a few hours before "it looked like everything had the potential to be going up" in flames.
As his family fled their neighborhood, under order to evacuate, he saw a "red, huge horizon of smoke."
Then, in what seemed to be about a 10-minute period, it appeared that the firefighters somehow were able to wrangle the flames and tame them considerably.
By the early afternoon, the black smoke was turning a lighter shade and he prepared to return home.
Times staff writers Christine Mai-Duc, Ari Bloomekatz, Joseph Serna, Andrew Blankstein, Steve Chawkins, Abby Sewell, Marisa Gerber and Samantha Schaefer contributed to this report.