18/06/2016 7:24 AM AEST | Updated 18/06/2016 7:27 AM AEST

California Wildfire Triples In Size And Forces Evacuations

Another blaze in New Mexico had destroyed dozens of homes.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A wildfire in Southern California more than tripled in size overnight and forced officials to close a major highway, while another blaze in New Mexico had communities on edge after destroying two dozen homes, officials said on Friday.

California's so-called Sherpa Fire, burning in chapparal and tall grass, was driven by strong winds as it roared down hillsides toward the Pacific Ocean in a wilderness area northwest of the coastal city of Santa Barbara.

It grew from 1,200 acres (486 hectares) on Thursday night to more than 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares) early Friday, said Kerry Bierman, a spokeswoman for the joint operations center fighting the fire.

Marcus Yam via Getty Images

Its rapid growth during the night forced officials to close a portion of the 101 Freeway, a major corridor for vacation travelers near California's coast, though officials said they have since reopened the road.

Officials widened their evacuation orders to move people and horses out of danger, Bierman said. In all, they have placed at least 270 homes and businesses under evacuation orders and cleared out campgrounds and state beaches, she said.

The fire, which broke out on Wednesday in the Los Padres National Forest for reasons that remain under investigation, has not caused any injuries and officials have reported little property damage. Hundreds of firefighters working on the blaze had it about 5 percent contained.

In another part of the Southwest, firefighters on Friday sought to make headway against a wildfire in central New Mexico that has burned more than 16,000 acres (6,475 hectares) of timber and logging zones, and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate, officials said.

The blaze destroyed 24 single-family homes near the small community of Chilili in Bernalillo County soon after it erupted on Wednesday, said John Helmich, a spokesman for the team of 600 firefighters battling the fire.

On Thursday, firefighters made a successful stand on State Route 337 to protect Chilili from advancing flames, Helmich said.

Winds were expected to push the blaze to the east and southeast, away from more heavily populated areas on the northwest flank of the burn area, Helmich said.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has declared a state of emergency and ordered the state's National Guard to be prepared to assist in battling the blaze. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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