Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters
A fire engine is parked on Pacific Coast Highway as the Springs Fire burns in the hills at Point Mugu State Park on May 3.
Southern California firefighters battled back a series of sprawling, brush-fueled wildfires on Friday, including one that had blazed a trail to the beach in Ventura County overnight and was pushing toward the upscale city of Malibu, officials said.
At least six fires of various sizes flared up as high temperatures, low humidity and brittle brush left the state a veritable tinderbox over the last two days, although conditions were improving by the afternoon.
The so-called Springs Fire, made worse by howling Santa Ana winds and unusually dry vegetation, crept within "seven or eight miles" of Malibu around 2 a.m. local time [5 a.m. ET], Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash said.
"We've got hot, dirty, unglamorous firefighting work going on right now, guys with shovels trying to scratch out lines on the ground," Nash said in the early hours of Friday. "We've got those guys on these steep hillsides in the dark with nothing but the light of the fire and a flashlight."
Dry winds from inland to the ocean brought gusts of 40 to 50 miles per hour to the Southern California region on Friday. By 1 p.m Pacific time, the temperatures had dropped 11 degrees and the humidity shot up to 19 percent. Warnings remained in effect as winds stoked the flames, the National Weather Service reported.
“We’re looking good,” Battalion Chief Fred Burris of the Ventura County Fire Department said on Friday, according to NBC Los Angeles. “We believe we’re past the major structure threat at this time.”
The Springs Fire grew to 10,000 acres and was 10 percent contained as of early Friday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.
An eight-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway was shut down for a time on Thursday night as bright orange flames raced down scrubby hillsides toward the Pacific Ocean.
“We are asking members of the public to be very aware: This is very dangerous,” said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Tom Kruschke. “This is still a moving fire. If you were asked to evacuate, it will be a while before you are allowed in. And if at one point you are uncomfortable, please leave the area. It’s not safe to stay.”
The fires become especially dangerous when tree cover is dry and Santa Anna winds gust at high speeds, creating a wake-up call for everyone in California to be prepared. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.
“The firemen have been doing a really great job of keeping it away from the houses,” said Sara Mallam, a resident of Newbury Park, near Thousand Oaks, Calif. “It is kind of scary to see it get so close, but they really seem to know what they’re doing.”
Though the more than 925 firefighters on the scene got a brief overnight reprieve as the humidity jumped and winds died down, winds picked up again after sunrise on Friday.
Firefighters received help from tankers and helicopters in the air after the sun rose on Friday, according to a release from the Ventura County Fire Department.
Complicating the situation is the extremely dry plant life left from a season in which only about five inches of rain fell, officials said.
Friday "may be the hottest day of the week, and the humidity we do expect to plummet," Nash said. "We’re faced with a situation right now where the vegetation on the hillsides, the moisture level is what we typically see in August."
The cause of the fire remained under investigation Friday. There had been no lightning or other natural fire-starting phenomenon in the area when the blaze began, Nash said.
In Riverside County, hundreds of firefighters had begun to gain control of a wind-lashed 3,000-acre wildfire that consumed one home and led to the evacuation of hundreds of others.
The Riverside County fire, dubbed the Summit Fire, remained at just under 3,000 acres Friday morning and was about 65 percent contained, according to a Cal Fire incident report. Firefighters worked to improve containment lines around the raging blaze that threatened homes on Wednesday, but one building had been destroyed.
Two of the 650 firefighters trying to tame the blaze sustained non-life-threatening injuries, according to the report.
Additionally, more than 1,000 firefighters were battling a third major wildfire, designated the Panther Fire, Friday in rugged timberland in Northern California’s Tehama County about 30 miles east of Chico.
NBC News' Jeff Black contributed to this report.
View more videos at: http://nbclosangeles.com.
- Thousands in Calif. wildfire's path evacuated
- 'Monster' California wildfire reaches ocean, pushes toward Malibu
- 12-square-mile Springs Fire spreads toward Ventura County coast
This story was originally published on Thu May 2, 2013 9:46 AM EDT