Threat from 2 wildfires in Southern California eases

Helicopter drops water on burning hillside next to homes as firefighters battle the wind- and drought-driven Bernardo Fire, north of San Diego, Calif., on May 13, 2014; more than 20,000 homes and other residences were evacuated at one point REUTERS

SAN DIEGO -- The threat from two wildfires pushed by gusty winds eased Tuesday night after they chewed through canyons parched by California's drought. Evacuations orders were lifted for some 22,000 homes on the outskirts of San Diego and surrounding areas just a few hours after most of them were issued.

Evacuations were still in place for another 1,200 homes and businesses in Santa Barbara County, 250 miles to the north.

No homes were reported damaged in either fire, and authorities said the San Diego-area blaze was dying down. Winds in Santa Barbara County calmed down significantly after sunset, and firefighters were beginning to surround that fire. But the rugged terrain and unseasonably warm temperatures made firefighting difficult, creating some scary moments.

"At the point the fire is right now, we believe we have a pretty good handle on it," San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar said. "We hope to do some more work through the night and into tomorrow, but I think the largest part of the emergency has passed."

The flames that erupted in the fire-prone Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego quickly grew to 800 acres, driven by hot, dry Santa Ana winds, reports CBS San Diego affiliate KFMB-TV, which adds that the cause of the fire was still being investigated.

By late afternoon, the flames had ripped through canyons to approach expensive homes and new subdivisions on the ridges. It spread to Rancho Santa Fe, one of the wealthiest U.S. communities, known for its multimillion-dollar homes, golfing and horseback riding.

Black and gray smoke billowed over northern San Diego, filled with whirling ash and embers that created small spot fires. Flames crept within yards of some homes before firefighters doused them.

On one road, people on bicycles and skateboards stopped to watch as a plane dumped water on flames a half-mile away. At least two high schools and three elementary schools were evacuated.

The city of San Diego issued between 16,000 and 17,000 evacuation orders, according to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, including 300 that Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman described as mandatory. Gore said the sheriff's department issued an additional 5,000 evacuation orders outside city limits.

By nightfall, an unknown number of San Diego residents began returning home as the fire moved away from the city, Gore said.

The Santa Barbara County fire was in the community of Lompoc. That blaze quickly grew to more than 500 acres.

There were downed power lines and heavy brush in the area, said David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Months of drought have left much of the landscape ready to burn. Downtown Los Angeles has recorded just 6.08 inches of precipitation, with little time left in the July 1-June 30 rain year. That's less than half its annual average rainfall.

"Fire season last year never really ended in Southern California," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. His agency has responded to more than 1,350 fires since Jan. 1, compared with an average of 700 by this time of year.

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