Update: The Maria Fire continued to burn for a second day on Friday. An updated story is here.
A new brush fire broke out Thursday afternoon atop South Mountain, just south of Santa Paula, prompting precautionary evacuations as it exploded to more than 7,400 acres in size, authorities said. The flames were 0% contained.
The Maria Fire, as firefighters named the fire, was reported about 6:15 p.m. atop the mountain, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.
Firefighters were attempting to keep the flames boxed in south of the 126 Freeway, north of the 118 Freeway, East of Vineyard Avenue and west of Balcom Canyon Road.
Firefighters were working to stay between the advancing fire and homes on both the Somis side, to the south, as well as the Santa Paula side, to the north, Ventura County Fire Department Capt. Steve Kaufmann said.
Helicopters attacked the flames with water drops as firefighters on the ground got in place to protect structures, particularly agricultural properties in the threatened area of Somis, as the flames continued expanding.
Winds of 20 to 30 mph were pushing the head of the fire to the west, toward the Santa Clara River, according to Kaufmann. Firefighters conducted several rescues to assist residents get out of the path of the fire.
About 250 firefighters were assigned to the Maria Fire, along with three helicopters, more than 30 fire engines and two bulldozers, officials said.
Early in the fire, aerial footage from Sky5 showed big rigs hauling bulldozers driving through flames to position the machinery.
Helicopter drops had to be stopped shortly before 11 p.m. after an intrusion by a drone into the airspace above the fire was reported, officials said. Authorities continued looking into who was responsible for the drone Thursday night.
"This created quite a dangerous situation," Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said. "It's not only illegal, but it hampers our firefighting effort."
Despite the explosive rate of growth of the fire, fire officials said they were confident natural barriers, such as the Santa Clara River, would prevent the fire's ultimate footprint from growing larger than 12,000 acres.
The cause of the fire was unclear.
A large contingent of firefighters and equipment were already in the area to due the ongoing efforts to contain the nearby Easy Fire, which ignited Wednesday in Simi Valley. The East Fire has blackened more than 1,700 acres, destroyed two structured and was 10% contained as of Thursday.
And a blaze dubbed the Coronado Fire scorched about a quarter of an acre of brush behind homes along Coronado Circle in Santa Paula on Thursday afternoon before firefighters snuffed it out, officials said.
Evacuations were issued west of Balcom Canyon Road, north of the 118 Freeway, fire officials said. About 1,800 homes, occupied by roughly 7,500 people, were under evacuation orders.
An evacuation shelter was set up at the Camarillo Community Center, 1605 Burnley Street, Camarillo, county officials said.
Small animals were being accepted at the Ventura County Animal Services shelter in Camarillo, 600 Aviation Drive, while large animals were being housed at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd. in Ventura.
The Mesa Union School District announced classes would be cancelled on Friday.
The Santa Paula Unified School District, which had announced that schools would be open Friday just hours before the Maria Fire broke out as firefighters increased containment of the Easy Fire burning in the Simi Valley area, announced via social media that schools would be closed Friday "in an abundance of caution.
The Ventura County Office of Education cancelled classes Friday at the Briggs School District, Hueneme Elementary School District, Mesa Union School District, Mesa Union School District, Mupu School District, Oxnard Union High School District, Santa Clara Elementary School District, as well as the ACE charter school in Camarillo and University Preparation charter school in Camarillo.