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Winds, heat stoke Southern California wildfire

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MOORPARK, Calif. — Firefighters guarded rural homes, ranches and orchards as a wind-driven wildfire marched through rugged land between small Southern California communities Wednesday.

The hot, dry and gusty Santa Ana winds that spread the flames across 15 square miles returned for a second day, and incident commander Robert Lewin said the fire had potential for significant growth.

The blaze, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, was only 20 percent contained.

Fire officials said it began in the area of an agricultural mulch pile, but the cause remained under investigation. The Sheriff's Department earlier said it was apparently caused by spontaneous combustion in manure.

Winds and fuels such as grasses and light brush made the fire dangerous, Lewin said.

"Our firefighters need to be on guard, make sure they're out of harm's way when they're engaged in this fire, and so do the citizens," he said.

About 1,000 homes were considered threatened as the fire burned east and west just north of Moorpark, a city of 37,000. The 15,000-student Moorpark College was closed because of its proximity to the fire.

Reverse 911 calls recommending evacuations were made to 2,200 phones in unincorporated areas, but officials couldn't say how many people actually left.

Two outbuildings were destroyed but no homes had been damaged.

The fire was also threatening agricultural properties, a major concern in a county where the industry was valued at $1.6 billion last year.

"There are very, very valuable avocado groves and other agricultural values out there and we are doing everything we can to protect those," Lewin said.

Firefighters were also concerned about five major electrical transmission lines, a 36-inch natural gas pipeline and oil production fields within the fire perimeter, he said.

Nearly 900 firefighters, 18 air tankers and 12 helicopters were working the blaze.

The blaze was the largest of several fires that erupted in Southern California on Tuesday as the Santa Anas blew in from the northeast, pushing back the normal flow of cool and moist ocean air.

During a calm period early Wednesday, Marieke Lexmond stood with her dog Flynn and recalled the scary rush of fire and smoke past her rented Balcom Canyon home.

"It was a serious wind and the fire came out of the hills and it was burned out in 30 minutes," she said.

Lexmond and neighbors gathered horses into a corral in preparation for evacuation.

"We have the cars packed and we are ready to go. When it comes this close, you don't care. You take your passport and papers and animals and go," Lexmond said.

An animal evacuation center at the county fairgrounds had 136 horses, three donkeys, three pigs, two goats and a lamb.

Elsewhere in California, a fire that burned close to homes in the Riverside County city of Norco was just a black scar on the land by Wednesday morning, with no smoke or flames apparent.

Meanwhile, the hot, dry and windy weather increased fire activity northeast of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains, where remnants of a month-old, 251-square-mile wildfire are still smoldering. A 20-acre spot fire in was held in check by air drops of retardant, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Completion of containment lines around the giant blaze was expected Thursday, the service said. The fire destroyed 89 homes and caused two firefighter deaths in August.

A 300-acre wildfire burning in a heavily wooded area of Sonoma County near Geyserville was 90 percent surrounded, with full containment expected Thursday.