Thousands flee homes as California wildfires spread

Wildfires burning near a California recreation area have prompted new evacuation calls, according to Santa Barbara County officials. Photo courtesy Santa Barbara County Sheriff

By Jay Croft

(CNN) -- Thousands of people evacuated their homes in California as firefighters battled wildfires during a record-breaking heatwave, authorities said Sunday.

One of the most dangerous is the Whittier Fire in Santa Barbara County in coastal Southern California, which threatened children at a summer camp and has forced about 3,500 people to leave their homes, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Sunday.

The fire has claimed more than 7,800 acres and was only 5% contained, CalFire tweeted Sunday night.

The blaze near Los Padres National Forest began Saturday and expanded quickly, county spokeswoman Gina DePinto said. Its cause was unknown.

About 5,000 firefighters are batting 14 different fires across the state, CalFire said.

High temperatures across region

More than 13 million people remain under heat warnings and advisories Sunday, CNN meteorologist Haley Brink said. Temperatures could range between the upper 90s and 110s Fahrenheit.

More than 40 high-temperature records were set or tied Saturday across the West, including in Los Angeles; Las Vegas, Nevada; Helena, Montana; and Boise, Idaho.

Isolated thunderstorms could produce lightning with very little rain Sunday, so new fires could be started over much of the West, Brink said.

Winds out of the southeast are pushing the fire away from Santa Barbara and towards Santa Ynez, authorities said. A path towards Santa Ynez has already burned, which is helping firefighters contain parts of the fire.

Campers evacuated

In the Whittier Fire, firefighters saved at least 60 campers who were attending the Circle V Ranch, a popular summer camp, authorities said.

One of the campers, Amayah Madere, told CNN affiliate WCBS she was swimming in the pool when a counselor told her to get out of the water and change change clothes in a hurry. Campers were escorted to a dining hall to wait while firefighters battled flames around them, she said.

"I prayed that if I didn't die I would go to church and right when I prayed the firefighters came," Madere said.

Eric Peterson, Santa Barbara County fire chief, said the campers could not be taken out right away.

"They were trapped because the road was completely enveloped by flames and there were trees falling down across the road and there was really just no way to get them out of there," Peterson said. "So we had fire personnel, sheriff's personnel and Los Padres National Forest personnel all back there keeping those kids safe, and they rode it out there with them for hours, until it was safe enough to get them out of there."

All campers and staff were safe, organizers said in a message posted on social media.

CNN affiliate KEYT tweeted a video taken from inside a vehicle driving through the smoke.

The flames spread to several recreational areas such as Camp Whittier and Lake Cachuma, forcing visitors to abandon tents, RVs and boats. A sheriff's vehicle was also destroyed east of Lake Cachuma but the deputy was not hurt, a county spokesman said on Twitter.

The fire is believed to have started Saturday around 1:45 p.m. (local time) at Camp Whittier.

Sunday's temperatures will approach 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the area, forecasters said, with little chance of rain.

Alamo fire

Farther north in the county, a separate fire grew Sunday to about 24,000 acres off California Highway 166 near Twitchell Reservoir. That blaze, known as the Alamo Fire, remained 15% contained, officials said Sunday night.

Authorities said 133 structures were threatened by fire. About 200 people have evacuated.

The county said the area affected hasn't burned in many years. Smoke from the fire is visible in nearby Santa Maria, a city with more than 100,000 residents.

Authorities have said that ground and air resources have been deployed to face this blaze's "extreme fire behavior." Peterson said 10 strike teams, which include 50 fire trucks, have been sent to fight the fires.

More fires in California

On Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed a state of emergency in Butte County, in northern California, because of a wildfire.

Officials ordered the evacuation of more than 300 homes in Butte County due to the fire, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire said.

The blaze known as Wall Fire started Friday and had burned 4,400 acres by Sunday morning when it was 17% contained, officials said.

At least 10 structures, including homes, have been destroyed while five others were damaged, officials said.

"The fire continues to burn actively," the Cal Fire website said Sunday morning. "The fire is burning primarily to the northwest and southwest. Hot dry weather is expected to continue in the fire area."

CNN's Haley Brink, Tony Marco and Nicole Chavez contributed to this report.


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