The blaze erupted during morning rush hour along U.S. 101 in the Camarillo area about 50 miles west of Los Angeles. It was quickly spread by the winds, which also pushed other damaging blazes across the region.
The evacuation orders included the smoke-choked campus of California State University, Channel Islands, attended by about 5,000 students.
Flames quickly moved down slopes toward subdivisions, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. Some 6,500 acres -- more than 10 square miles -- were charred, with no containment. A cluster of RVs in a parking lot was destroyed as flames moved close to a mobile home park. There were no reports of homes burning.
More than 500 firefighters from multiple agencies with help from aircraft dropping water and retardant worked to protect numerous homes around Camarillo Springs Golf Course and in a section of adjacent Thousand Oaks.
Air tankers were grounded for a time in the afternoon because of the winds, which gusted to 50 mph.
The Santa Ana winds sent plumes of smoke and embers over the homes and strawberry fields to the south. At midday, farm sheds burst into flames in a clearing amid rows of crops.
The vegetation-withering dry winds out of the northeast caused humidity levels to plunge from 80 percent to single digits in less than an hour. Temperatures soared into the 90s in Camarillo.
The area is at the western edge of the Santa Monica Mountains, which abruptly descend to a coastal agricultural plain. It was possible the flames could burn all the way to the Pacific Ocean, about 10 miles from the start point.
For a while, the California Highway Patrol closed a 10-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway at Point Mugu. It was reopened at midafternoon around the time coastal weather stations recorded a localized return of moisture-bearing winds off the ocean, although hot Santa Anas kept blowing a few miles inland.
Mark Brewer, 52, was resting at an evacuation center on Thursday afternoon, after he and about 25 adults and children were evacuated from a county-run homeless shelter. Brewer could see flames coming down a hillside toward the building before he left.
"This is a part of being in Southern California, just like earthquakes," Brewer said.
Brewer, who lost his job in the mortgage industry a year and a half ago, managed to grab his laptop, some clothes and papers from the room he lives in before traveling to a Camarillo church, where evacuees were glued to televisions watching fire coverage.
About 100 miles to the east, two homes, a number of outbuildings and several vehicles were destroyed, and two other homes were damaged in a 5-acre grass fire that prompted the evacuation of an elementary school in Jurupa Valley, said Theresa Williams, a spokeswoman for CalFire.
The blazes could signal a difficult fire season ahead.
Officials with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise said Wednesday in their first 2013 summer outlook that a dry winter and expected warming trend mean the potential for significant fire activity will be above normal on the West Coast, in the Southwest and portions of Idaho and Montana.
Meanwhile, the California Department of Water Resources found the water content in the snowpack was just 17 percent of normal. The snowmelt is a vital water source for the state.
Elsewhere in California, crews made progress on a 4½-square-mile fire burning in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains north of Banning, Riverside County fire spokeswoman Jody Hagemann said.
The fire that burned a home on Wednesday was 40 percent contained with only sporadic flames showing,
In Northern California, a fire in a remote area of brush and timber north of the town of Butte Meadows grew to 2,000 acres with 10 percent containment, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. Several fires under 200 acres burned in Sonoma, Glenn and Butte counties.
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