Concerns loom over the embers spreading in the coming days as California and the region expect temperatures 10 to 15 degrees above average early next week, with highs predicted to exceed 100 degrees in parts of the state, CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward said.
Allan Aguilera and his family decided to evacuate Laguna Niguel on Wednesday when they saw the scale of the flames from a vantage point in the neighborhood, he told CNN.
“When we reached the top, we saw the full extent of the fire and saw how quickly it was spreading,” he said. “There were tons of people in the area doing the same, watching the fire before the winds changed and started pushing 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 valuable possessions…and evacuated early to avoid any potential bottlenecks should the worst-case scenario occur,” he said. -he adds.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, although investigators say “circuit activity” was continuing “nearly in time” when it was reported, Southern California Edison said in a first incident report published on Wednesday. The utility did not provide further details on circuit activity, and firefighters did not comment on or confirm any details at a press conference Thursday.
Two firefighters were treated at a hospital as some 550 firefighters work to contain the blaze, Orange County Fire Division Chief and Incident Commander Shane Sherwood said.
Sudden fire surprises officials
The speed and intensity of the coastal fire shocked officials and scientists who say there was no high fire risk on Wednesday. While the winds that helped fuel the fire reached up to 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service, gusts from the Pacific Ocean were cool and wet.
“The humidity was high, which isn’t necessarily optimal to get that kind of burn,” Greg Martin, a meteorologist with the San Diego Weather Services office, said Thursday. “I was really surprised when I saw the plume of smoke last night on my ride and wondered what was burning.
“It wasn’t what I would have thought was an ideal situation, and yet we had a significant fire,” he said.
Although the winds were not typical of a high fire danger, the region is suffering from intense and prolonged drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. Dry brush and vegetation will increasingly fuel fires like the one in Orange County, the county’s fire chief said.
“The fuel beds in this county, all of Southern California, all of the west, are so dry that a fire like this is going to be more common,” Brian Fennessy said.
“We’re seeing spread in ways we haven’t seen before,” he said. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, a fire like this could have reached an acre, a few acres” before firefighters could control it. But now “the fire spreads in this very dry vegetation and takes off”.
Residents of Laguna Niguel neighborhoods were under mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday and Thursday as city officials declared a state of emergency so resources could be accessed quickly.
The West facing a new climate reality
“It’s the result of climate change, it’s the result of the drought that we’re seeing,” Cal Fire communications battalion chief Issac Sanchez told CNN. “The Coastal Fire is a graphic example that you don’t need thousands of burned acres to affect you.”
“It’s way too early” for a blaze like the Coastal Fire in Southern California, said Bill South, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Hanford. “This has the potential to be a really bad fire season. And as everyone knows, we’re in 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.