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Southern California wildfire: Officials declare emergency; nearly 300 structures at risk

By Amy R. Connolly and Doug G. Ware
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Southern California wildfire: Officials declare emergency; nearly 300 structures at risk
Firefighters assess the growing Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County, Calif., on Thursday. Officials said the blaze began Wednesday and grew to more than 4,000 acres by mid-Friday. The fire prompted mandatory evacuations and road closures throughout the Southern California region. Photo courtesy Santa Barbara County/Facebook

SANTA BARBARA, Calif., June 17 (UPI) -- Government officials in California's Santa Barbara County declared an emergency Friday, stemming from a fast-moving wildfire that grew by nearly 3,000 acres in just a few hours.

The Sherpa Fire, which started Wednesday afternoon, has prompted mandatory evacuations and sweeping road closures in the Southern California community.

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The blaze, kept burning by decades-old vegetation and strong "sundowner" winds, moved to U.S. Route 101 between El Capitan State Beach and Gaviota, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down the highway for several hours. Rail service in the area was also shut down overnight.'

Experts say sundowner winds, which arrive at dusk, create conditions that allow the flames to grow rapidly. Forecasters said they, and other weather patterns favorable to wildfires, are likely to continue.

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Santa Barbara County/Twitter

"The sundowners could possibly peak in intensity Saturday evening," one official said. "Significantly hotter and drier weather expected beginning Sunday."

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During a news conference Friday morning, fire officials said the wildfire is only 5 percent contained and has grown to more than 4,000 acres -- up from 1,200 Thursday night. Also, officials said about 270 structures are under 72-hour threat and more than 1,200 firefighters are working the blaze.

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Mandatory evacuation orders are in effect for areas that include Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon, Flores Canyon, Ocean Mesa, El Capitan Campground, El Capitan State Park, and Refugio State Park

"Each agency has brought its strengths to this challenge," U.S. Forest Service officer Bob Baird said. "We brought the federal air tankers in, as well as the night air attack platform, and we are continuing to use all the resources we have to be able to bring in, to deal with the wildfire."

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Cal Fire/Facebook

A heat wave in Southern California is expected to bring triple-digit temperatures on Sunday, increasing the likelihood the flames will keep burning. So far, wildfires across the Golden State have destroyed about 30,000 acres -- roughly equal to the size of land burned during this same period last year.

The cause of the Sherpa wildfire is under investigation. No injuries have been reported.

Santa Barbara is located about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

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