There are concerns the embers could spread in the coming days as California and the region expect temperatures 10 to 15 degrees above average through early next week, with forecast highs topping 100 degrees in parts of the state, CNN said -Meteorologist Taylor Ward.
Allan Aguilera and his family decided to evacuate Laguna Niguel on Wednesday when they saw the extent of the blaze from a neighborhood lookout, he told CNN.
“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 and watching the fire before the wind changed and started urging the flames closer and closer. At this 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,” he added.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, although investigators say the “circuit activity” was “temporary” at the time it was reported, Southern California Edison said in an initial incident report released Wednesday. The utility gave no further details on circuit activity, and fire officials did not offer or confirm any details during a news conference Thursday.
Two firefighters were treated at a hospital while about 550 firefighters worked to contain the blaze, said Orange County Fire Department chief and incident commander Shane Sherwood.
The sudden fire surprised the officials
The speed and intensity of the coastal fire shocked officials and scientists, who said there was not a high risk of fire on Wednesday. While the winds that helped fuel the fire reached up to 30 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service, the gusts off the Pacific were cool and humid.
“The humidity was high, which isn’t necessarily optimal for getting these types of burns,” Greg Martin, meteorologist at the San Diego Weather Service office, said Thursday. “I was really surprised when I saw the plume of smoke on my way to work last night and wondered what was burning.
“It wasn’t what I would have thought an ideal situation, and yet we had a significant fire,” he said.
Though the winds weren’t typical of high fire risk, the region is suffering from an ongoing intense drought, the US Drought Monitor says. Dry scrub and vegetation will increasingly feed fires like the one in Orange County, the county fire chief said.
“The fuel beds in this county, throughout Southern California, throughout the West are so dry that fires like this are going to be more common,” said Brian Fennessy.
“We’re seeing spread in a way we’ve never had before,” he said. “Five years ago, ten years ago, a fire like that might have grown to an acre, a few acres” before the fire department could control it. But now “fire is spreading and taking off in this very dry vegetation.”
Residents in the Laguna Niguel neighborhoods were under mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday and Thursday as city officials declared a state of emergency to allow quick access to resources.
The West faces a new climate reality
“It’s a consequence of climate change, it’s a consequence of the drought that we’re experiencing,” Issac Sanchez, communications chief for the Cal Fire Battalion, told CNN. “The Coastal Fire is a vivid example of how you don’t need thousands of acres burned to meet.”
“It’s way too early” for a fire like the Southern California Coast Fire, said Bill South, a weather forecaster with the National Weather Service in Hanford. “This has the potential to be a very bad fire season. And as everyone knows, we’re in the middle of a drought here in the entire state of California.”
CNN’s Rachel Ramirez, Angela Fritz, Chad Myers, Ella Nilsen, Stephanie Elam, Christina Maxouris, Aya Elamroussi, Sarah Moon, and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.