CAMARILLO — A huge Southern California wildfire carved a path to the sea and burned on the beach Friday, but firefighters got a break as gusty Santa Ana winds turned into breezes.
Temperatures remained high, but humidity levels were expected to soar as cool air moved in from the ocean and the Santa Anas retreated.
At the same time, the reversal of wind direction carried the risk of sending flames in new, dangerous directions.
"It could move just as quickly coming the other way," said Bill Nash, a Ventura County fire spokesman.
The wind-whipped fire erupted Thursday in the Camarillo area, threatening as many as 4,000 homes but only damaging 15, Nash said.
The 15 1/2-square-mile blaze was only 10 percent contained on Friday, and the work of more than 900 firefighters, aided by air tankers, was just beginning.
Evacuations were lifted overnight for neighborhoods as the fire moved toward the coast. California State University, Channel Islands remained closed, and new evacuations were called for coastal canyons, Nash said.
He did not know how many homes were immediately threatened but said the area mainly included ranches, orchards, camps and vacation homes rather than dense neighborhoods. Some expensive ridge-top and canyon homes also were in the path of the flames.
By midmorning, the fire was 20 miles from Malibu, burning mostly in rugged mountains. It jumped the Pacific Coast Highway and burned on a beach shooting range of a coastal naval base. No housing structures were in immediate danger.
The fire reinforced predictions that California is in for a bad summer fire season because dry winter and spring weather has left brush tinder-dry.
In addition, 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.
More than 3,000 firefighters were battling six major wildfires on Friday in California, the state fire agency said.
Fire crews have responded to more than 680 wildfires since the beginning of the year — some 200 more than average for the period.
Hot, dry Santa Ana winds gusting to 50 mph or more swept flames from the Camarillo-area fire toward the coast on Thursday.
Cooler, calmer ocean air was beginning to move ashore on Friday and could send the humidity soaring — the beginning of change that could bring chance of rain in the fire area by Sunday night or Monday morning.
The National Weather Service canceled mountain wind advisories and predicted onshore winds of only 10 to 15 mph, with some 20 mph gusts.
The change had been expected to begin later in the afternoon but its early arrival was a potential mixed blessing for fire crews.
"They'll have to be on their toes as far as a wind shift. Now the fire will have to move the other direction," said Eric Boldt, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
That raised concerns of flare-ups along the path of the fire.