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Southern California Wildfire Rages Unchecked After Evacuations

Helicopters drop fire retardant and water over the BlueCut fire in the Cajon Pass near San Bernardino, California, Aug. 17, 2016.

A Southern California wildfire raged unchecked in thick brush on Wednesday after destroying an unknown number of houses near a highway corridor between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and forcing as many as 80,000 residents to flee their homes, officials said.

The so-called Blue Cut Fire ignited on Tuesday in the mountainous Cajon Pass and quickly ballooned to 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares), putting firefighters on the defensive as they made a stand in front of homes and businesses.

The blaze is the latest in an intense series of wildfires this year in the U.S. West, where years of drought have dried trees and brush.

"It's to the point where explosive fire growth is the new normal this year," Glenn Barley, a fire chief with the San Bernardino unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire) said at a news conference Wednesday.

Given the dryness and ongoing warm weather, U.S. government forecasters have said Southern California faces a potential threat from major wildfires until December.

The Blue Cut Fire, named for a narrow gorge north of San Bernardino where it started, was zero percent contained as it threatened the town of Wrightwood near a ski resort and other communities in a partly rural area, authorities said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Authorities said they were forced to close part of Interstate 15, which runs through the Cajon Pass between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area, and to order about 80,000 residents to evacuate.

Thick columns of smoke blocked out the sky above mountain peaks, as horse owners in the area scrambled to lead their animals onto trailers.

Local television station KNBC showed video of several homes engulfed in flames. Officials confirmed houses were gutted by the blaze but could not say how many.

"There will be a lot of families that come home to nothing," San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig told reporters.

The Los Angeles Times reported hundreds of residents of Wrightwood were staying in their houses, despite dire warnings from authorities.

"In my 40 years of fighting fire, I've never seen fire behavior so extreme as it was yesterday," Michael Wakoski, the incident commander on the fire, said Wednesday.

About 600 miles (970 km) to the northwest, the so-called Clayton Fire was 40 percent contained on Wednesday morning after charring 4,000 acres in and around the community of Lower Lake and destroying 175 homes and businesses.