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Wildfires menace southern California, thousands evacuated

A firefighter battles the Ranch Fire near San Diego, California May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker
A firefighter battles the Ranch Fire near San Diego, California May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Wildfires were raging in southern California on Thursday, keeping thousands of residents and students away from their homes after San Diego county officials maintained evacuation advisories.

Whipped by the wind, flames swept over the parched land close to homes and roads in nine fires across the county, with black smoke filling the sky as California entered the height of wildfire season in the midst of one of the state's worst droughts. No major injuries were reported.

California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency to free up resources.

A blaze in San Marcos that erupted on Wednesday prompted officials to issue evacuation notices for thousands of residents and students at a California State University campus.

The university, which has more than 9,000 students, said on Thursday its evacuation orders would remain through Friday and it had canceled commencement ceremonies.

"The fire was right above campus. I could see it reaching over part of the hill, this really dark smoke. It was almost like an explosion," Grant Rapoza, 19, told Reuters.

The San Marcos fire has burned 700 acres, destroying at least three buildings, the San Diego County emergency website said on Thursday. "(The) fire is still very active and continues to move to the south," it said.

Another fire that broke out on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base north of San Diego had charred some 6,000 acres by Wednesday evening, prompting the evacuation of military housing and a naval weapons station.

The San Diego Unified School district and other districts canceled Thursday classes, it said. An amusement park, a power generating station, and schools were evacuated on Wednesday.

Officials in the coastal city of Carlsbad said early on Thursday the fire there was about 50 percent contained and lifted some evacuation orders. Emergency shelters had been set up at schools and community centers.

At least eight residences, one apartment building, and two businesses burned to the ground in Carlsbad. Officials estimated the fire caused $18.5 million in damage.

The nine wildfires have so far scorched more than 9,000 acres in total, though firefighters were aided by quieter winds and lower temperatures overnight. Harsher conditions bringing the possibility of new blazes were seen for Thursday.

San Diego Gas and Electric said that power outages hitting more than 2,300 customers could remain through Thursday evening.

(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Alison Williams)

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