OJAI, Calif. – Helicopters lifted off as winds calmed Sunday, ferrying water and transporting firefighters to battle a three-week-old wildfire that has scorched more than 200 square miles of the Los Padres National Forest.
Hot, dry Santa Ana winds appeared to be picking up by late morning but were still somewhat tamer than in recent days, reducing the risk of the blaze spreading and allowing more firefighters to go to work.
"This activity today is going to depend a lot on the wind," said firefighter John Nunez, 24.
The forecast called for winds of 15 mph with gusts of up to 40 mph.
Late Saturday, authorities urged the evacuation of about 300 houses and a college east of Ojai. The order was voluntary and came after the fierce winds blew embers past the lines of the blaze, igniting at least two "spot" fires.
The winds also prompted authorities to briefly ground their 27 water-dropping helicopters Saturday, but Dan Bastion of the U.S. Forest Service said all available aircraft will be used Sunday.
Flames were visible on the ridge from Highway 150, which is about three miles from the fire line.
The new fires consumed thousands of acres of brush before burning back into the main blaze, which has scorched 127,569 acres — or nearly 200 square miles — since igniting Labor Day. It was 40 percent contained.
One of the "spot" blazes burned about 7,000 acres in the canyons above Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula along Highway 150, about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. The campus was evacuated late Saturday.
Plumes of reddish smoke were visible as students raced between dorms gathering books and clothing.
Charlie Kaiser, 20, walked to his car carrying a surfboard wrapped in a blanket and several books.
"If we get Monday off, I want to go surfing," Kaiser said. "I don't think the campus is going to burn down or anything. It's too wet. The fire will probably go around."
Students said college maintenance employees had been running sprinklers nonstop for a week. Buses transported evacuated students to a nearby church.
The second "spot" fire burned about 3,000 acres south of Lockwood Valley.
To the west, 10 homes in the Rose Valley area were evacuated as a precaution, and hundreds of people in communities about 10 miles from the fire's edge were told to be ready to leave if the winds sent flames their way.
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for extreme fire conditions through Sunday in the area.
Parker said fire officials were hopeful the winds would begin to taper off by Sunday afternoon.
"Once that happens, we will get in there with a passion and do as much work as we can so we can put this thing to bed," he said.
A light, moist wind from the south had calmed the huge fire along the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties for several days last week.
More than 3,000 firefighters were battling the blaze, which has cost $33 million to fight.
Elsewhere, a small brush fire broke out Saturday in the Angeles National Forest in northern Los Angeles County. It burned 100 acres and was 35 percent contained. No structures were threatened and no evacuations were ordered, authorities said.