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Wildfire forces hundreds to evacuate

Only 5 percent of 17,000 acre fire under control, officials say

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Los Angeles (California)

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- A fire in Southern California has more than quadrupled in size in 24 hours, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate Thursday, officials said.

So far, only 5 percent of the blaze has been contained.

The fire, which started Wednesday afternoon near Chatsworth, northwest of Los Angeles, already has scorched at least 16,975 acres and threatens Simi Valley to the north and Thousand Oaks to the west.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Although dry conditions provided additional fuel to the fire, winds were weaker than forecast Thursday morning, enabling firefighters to directly battle the blaze, said Kevin Nestor, a battalion chief for the Ventura County Fire Department.

He cautioned, though, that "those northeast winds can pick up anytime."

In such a scenario, flames could reach U.S. 101, about 15 miles away, said Capt. Mark Savage, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Six structures, including a home and its detached garage, have been destroyed.

"It's horrible, I'm homeless," David Nenkervis told CNN affiliate KABC after inspecting his property. "God, I can't believe it; 64 years old, and I don't have a home."

The Santa Ana winds, low humidity and temperatures expected to reach into the 100s are fanning the fire.

"You couldn't have really much worse of a weather situation when you have a fire this large," Savage told CNN.

He warned residents near the fire to prepare to evacuate.

"Identify two exits out of the home and identify the items you need, because it may be at a moment's notice," Savage said.

Savage added that the more than 3,000 firefighters on the scene won't have a chance to stop the fire until the wind decreases.

Warnings have been issued for four residential areas. An evacuation shelter also has been opened, along with a shelter for animals.

At least 500 residents heeded mandatory evacuation orders and took refuge in shelters. Some residents huddled by news media teams hoping to learn more about the fate of their homes.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that firefighters have saved 2,000 structures and that his county and Ventura County are in the process of declaring states of disaster. Such a declaration would formalize aid with other agencies and help recuperate the cost of fighting the massive fire.

Overnight, firefighters dropped water from helicopters near threatened homes, a risky venture because of the low visibility.

Thursday morning aerial video showed a vacant warehouse at the Boeing Santa Susana Field Laboratory fully engulfed in flames. The property, formerly owned by Rocketdyne, has been used to test rocket engines since 1950 and was at the center of several lawsuits settled last week. The suits claimed that contamination at the facility led to fatal illnesses.

Boeing has a multimillion dollar program to monitor and clean up environmental contamination at the site, which it says was the result of past operations.

CNN's Dan Simon contributed to this report

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