The coastal fire began around 2:45 p.m. Wednesday afternoon at Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and quickly grew to about 200 acres, said TJ McGovern, deputy chief of operations for the Orange County Fire Authority. The fire then spread to the town of Laguna Niguel, tearing through mansions along hill streets in one of California’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
One firefighter was injured and taken to hospital, McGovern said. About 900 homes are under evacuation orders, said Orange County Sheriff’s Department Captain Virgil Asuncion.
Jennifer McCoy, a resident of nearby Laguna Beach, told CNN she first noticed smoke from Laguna Niguel around 4:15 p.m. Less than two hours later, the plumes of smoke grew even larger, McCoy said.
“I went down to the mall and the smoke got maybe two to three times what it was before,” she said.
Officials are still looking for the cause of the fire
While the cause of the fire is unknown and under investigation, “circuit activity” was “temporary” when the bushfire was reported, Southern California Edison (SCE) said in an initial incident report released Wednesday night.
“Our information reflects circuit activity that occurred shortly before the reported time of the fire,” the utility said in the document.
While no further details were given, the utility said a report “was submitted out of caution as it concerns an event that may be the subject of significant public attention and/or media coverage.”
Fire officials did not comment during a news conference Thursday morning and did not confirm details about the circuit’s activities.
“Our fire investigators are looking at this (circuit activity) right now and will be looking at all aspects of what may have caused this wildfire,” McGovern said. “We don’t have specifics, but our investigators are investigating every possible cause.”
Even so, Wednesday’s fire risk wasn’t particularly high, and officials and scientists were surprised by the speed and intensity of the blaze. Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said a bushfire like this used to be relatively small. No more.
“The fuel beds in this county, throughout Southern California and throughout the West are so dry that a fire like this will be more common,” he said.
Despite the efforts of firefighters, the fire was still “running” toward first responders, officials said.
“We’re seeing spread in a way that we’ve never had before,” Fennessy said. “Five years ago, ten years ago that kind of fire might have grown to an acre, a few acres” before it was under control. But now “fire is spreading and taking off in this very dry vegetation,” he said.
“We don’t have fire season. It’s year-round now, and those last four fires we’ve just had have proven it to all of us,” he said.
Laguna Niguel residents urged to evacuate
Allan Aguilera, a Laguna Niguel resident, told CNN he and his family decided to evacuate after seeing the extent of the blaze from a neighborhood lookout.
“When we got to the top, we saw the full extent of the fire and witnessed how quickly it spread,” he said. “There were tons of people in the area doing the same thing, watching the fire before the wind turned and starting to urge the flames closer and closer. At that point we decided to leave and prepare for a possible evacuation.”
“The situation was incredibly tense, but we kept our cool, gathered our most prized belongings… and evacuated early to avoid potential shortages should the worst-case scenario materialize,” Aguilera added.
Firefighters were resorting to water from a pond at El Niguel Country Club in Laguna Niguel to fight the blazes as thick brown and gray smoke blanketed the area.
Crews conducted damage assessments overnight, looking for hotspots or flying embers that could ignite more damaging flames, Fennessy said.
The region is also forecast to get hotter over the next few days. Temperatures will be 10 to 15 degrees above average across California and the Southwest Friday through the weekend and through early next week.
“Today will mark the start of a warming trend that will continue through Saturday. High temperatures will be above normal today through Saturday, with Saturday set to be the warmest day of the next seven,” the Los Angeles National Weather Service said.
From “Fire Season” to “Fire Year”
Winter and spring are usually the wet seasons for California, but this year was anything but — especially in the southern half of the state. Los Angeles and Palm Springs had their third and second driest starts in a year, respectively. Records in this region go back more than 70 years.
Nationwide, January through April were the driest first four months on record, the US Drought Monitor reported Thursday. In the past week alone, the extreme drought has spread from 40% of the state to 60%.
“We’ve stopped talking about fire times,” Isaac Sanchez, Cal Fire’s battalion communications chief, told CNN. “The implication of this term is when we are in fire season, there is a time of year when we are not in fire season. That’s just not the case in California anymore.”
“It’s a consequence of climate change, it’s a consequence of the drought that we’re experiencing,” Sanchez added. “The Coastal Fire is a vivid example of how you don’t need thousands of acres burned to meet.”
CNN’s Brandon Miller, Ella Nilsen, Sharif Paget and Taylor Ward contributed to this report.