FIREFIGHTERS were last night bringing under control a California wildfire which had threatened to tear through one of the wealthiest communities in the United States.
The blaze in and around San Diego prompted authorities to issue evacuation orders for more than 20,000 homes, with crews battling to tackle the flames.
It surged amid high heat and dry winds in drought conditions but as darkness fell, cooler temperatures set in, allowing the fire to be brought under control.
Another fire 250 miles to the north in Santa Barbara County also died down after dark.
All but a handful of the evacuation orders that had affected 1,200 homes and businesses earlier were called off.
The rugged terrain and unseasonably warm temperatures had made firefighting difficult, but no damaged homes or injuries were reported in either fire.
Further north, Los Angeles has seen just half of its average annual rainfall in 2013-14.
San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar said: “At the point the fire is right now, we believe we have a pretty good handle on it. We hope to do some more work through the night and into tomorrow, but I think the largest part of the emergency has passed.”
The flames that erupted in the fire-prone Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego on Tuesday quickly spread to cover 700 acres, driven by hot, dry Santa Ana winds. By late afternoon, the flames ripped through canyons to approach expensive homes and new developments. The fire spread to Rancho Santa Fe – one of the wealthiest US communities – known for its multimillion-pound homes, golfing and horse-riding.
Black and grey smoke billowed over northern San Diego, filled with whirling ash and embers that created small spot fires. Flames crept within yards of some homes before firefighters extinguished them.
At least two high schools and three primary schools were evacuated, and the city of San Diego issued between 16,000 and 17,000 evacuation orders, according to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore.
Mr Gore said the sheriff’s department issued an additional 5,000 evacuation orders outside city limits.
As night fell the evacuations were called off for city residents, and all county residents were told they could safely return.
In the second blaze, at the Santa Barbara County community of Lompoc, the wildfire spread to about 700 acres.
Power lines were brought down in the heavy brush in the area, said David Sadecki of Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Months of drought have left much of the landscape ready to burn. Downtown Los Angeles has recorded just 6.08in of precipitation with little time left in the 1 July-30 June year. That is less than half its annual average rainfall.
“Fire season last year never really ended in southern California,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
His agency has responded to more than 1,350 fires since 1 January, compared with an average of 700 by this time of year.