FEROCIOUS winds in southern California have whipped up an explosive wildfire that prompted evacuation orders for nearly 8,000 homes, authorities said yesterday.

The blaze broke out on Monday and grew wildly to more than 40 square miles in the hours that followed, consuming vegetation that has not burned in decades, Ventura County fire sergeant Eric Buschow said.

The winds were pushing it towards Santa Paula, a city of 30,000 people about 60 miles north-west of Los Angeles. Many of the evacuated homes were in that city. However, evacuation orders were expanded to houses in Ventura, which is 12 miles south-west and has 106,000 residents.

“The fire growth is just absolutely exponential,” Ventura County fire chief Mark Lorenzen said.

“All firefighters can do when we have winds like this is get out ahead, evacuate people, and protect structures.”

Thomas Aquinas College, a school with about 350 students, has also been evacuated, with students going to their own homes or to those of faculty and staff, the college said in a statement.

One person was killed in a vehicle accident associated with the fire, officials said. At least two structures have burned so far.

Winds exceeding 40mph and gusts over 60mph have been reported in the area and are expected to continue, the National Weather Service said.

All schools in the Ventura Unified School District were closed yesterday.