A wind-driven brush fire broke out Monday in Orange County, critically injuring two firefighters and forcing tens of thousands of residents from their homes amid conditions that forecasters were calling the most dangerous fire weather of the year.
The Silverado fire broke out shortly after 6:45 a.m. near Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads.
The fire, which was burning in a hilly area above homes, had grown to 4,000 acres by 1 p.m., officials said.
Two hand crew firefighters were severely burned as they battled the blaze from the ground, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said.
The firefighters, 26 and 31, were both intubated after one of them suffered second and third degree burns over 65% of their body and the other suffered burns over 50% of their body, Fennessy said. Officials learned of their injuries at about 12:15 p.m., he said. Additional details about what happened weren’t immediately available.
“This is tough for me, tough for all my firefighters and certainly for the families of my two injured firefighters,” Fennessy said during a press conference outside the Orange County Global Medical Center, where the firefighters were being treated.
A mandatory evacuation order was issued for about 60,000 residents in Irvine, including all homes north of Irvine Boulevard between Bake Parkway and Jamboree Road, officials said. Schools in the area are also being evacuated.
Shortly before 2 p.m., the orders were expanded to include homes from Irvine Boulevard south to Trabuco Road and from Jeffrey Road east to Portola High School.
Evacuation centers were set up at seven locations, including Los Olivos Community Center, Harvard Community Center and Las Lomas Community Center in Irvine, and many were at capacity by late morning, the city said. Another shelter at Village Church of Irvine opened at noon.
Highway 241 was shut down from Santiago Canyon Road to Highway 133. Portola Parkway was closed between the 241 and Jamboree Road, and Santiago Canyon Road was closed from the 241 to Live Oak Canyon Road.
By 1 p.m., flames were burning alongside the 133 at the Irvine Boulevard overpass. Video recorded by a KTLA-TV Channel 5 helicopter showed fire consuming vegetation on the side of the road and lapping at the bridge while cars continued to drive across, though the overpass was shut down to traffic a short time later.
Another brush fire broke out Monday afternoon near Las Palmas and Flintridge drives in Fullerton and forced the evacuation of homes there, the city tweeted shortly before 12:30 p.m.
Many parks in the area also were closed because of the fires and high winds.
UC Irvine said it was suspending campus operations for the day because smoke and ash were making the air hazardous.
Thick smoke choked neighborhoods miles from where the Silverado fire broke out. Strong winds sent ash flying, covering patios and backyards in the Woodbridge area and forcing residents indoors.
The winds were knocking over half-full trash cans and pushing them around the streets of Orchard Hills, a neighborhood in Irvine that sits in the path of fire. Small trees were nearly ripped out by their roots amid gusts.
The area is dotted with two-story stucco homes, and some are still in the middle of construction. Almost everyone had evacuated by late morning, with the exception of one or two families who were still gathering their belongings before fleeing.
Not far from Bella Garden Park, Raymond Siu, 44, stuffed his Lexus SUV with luggage and other personal items. Breathing hard, he said he learned about the fire from police alerts on his phone and immediately began preparing to evacuate.
“I’m feeling rushed,” he said, running to his white Tesla before driving off.
His family, who were seated in the white Lexus SUV, followed behind him.
There was no word on how the fire started. It ignited as parts of Southern California were experiencing fierce, dry Santa Ana winds, with forecasters warning that any fire that were to start could spread rapidly and be difficult to contain.
By 2 p.m., the National Weather Service was measuring wind gusts of 40 to 45 mph within the fire area.
“And then combined with the really dry air, that’s why it’s creating these critical fire conditions and this fast-spreading wildfire,” said Dan Gregoria, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego.
Relative humidity had plummeted to 5%, “which is bone dry,” he said.
Gregoria said the area looked to be experiencing the worst of the wind Monday afternoon, although the gusty conditions were expected to persist for another four or five hours before starting to subside later in the evening.
As predicted, the strong winds were hindering firefighting efforts: Water-dropping aircraft had to be pulled off the blaze around 10:30 a.m. and crews weren’t sure when they’d be able to get back in the air, said Capt. Ben Gonzales of the Orange County Fire Authority. The aircraft remained grounded through Monday afternoon.
Lana Salameh, 45, had just dropped off her two youngest children at school and returned home in Irvine’s Eastwood community when she realized the sky was a dull orange. Trees were falling outside and smoke was seeping into the house, but she had not been informed that school was canceled.
She hustled back to grab her 9-year-old daughter, Farah Abdelbari, whose tears were soaking her pink mask at Eastwood Elementary School. She then picked up her 11-year-old son, Omar.
“They were scared. It wasn’t easy,” Salameh said. “My kids were crying, but we had to leave.”
They grabbed their passports and some bananas before arriving at Quail Hill Community Center, which was reaching capacity.
Inside, about 30 people sat at socially distanced desks while small dogs were tied to table legs. News reports of the fire were pulled up on many of the evacuees’ laptops.
Salameh’s children were glued to their laptops to work on school assignments.
Esther Lee, 55, and dozens of others waited outside in the parking lot for a spot to open inside.
When Lee looked outside her bedroom Monday morning, the palm trees were swaying and a large plume of smoke had overtaken the nearby mountains.
Her home of 19 years along Portola Avenue in Irvine was being buffeted by smoke and wind, so she started packing.
Around 9:30 a.m., she received a mandatory evacuation notice and quickly packed important documents into her two cars.
“We didn’t have much time, and I didn’t want to stay too long,” Lee said. “We’re just staying put for now because the winds can be so unpredictable.”
She and her husband, Jay, decided to stay put in a nearby park with their dog, Katara, until the couple’s family members in Lake Forest had an evacuation plan.
Lee has had to leave her home in the past, but Monday’s winds made her more concerned for her home’s safety.
Fire officials weren’t aware of any homes that had burned but did receive a report of a fence ablaze in someone’s backyard, Gonzales said. He said the windy weather, dry vegetation and steep terrain had combined to pose a challenge to firefighters.
“It’s a little bit of everything to be honest, between the high unpredictable winds — we’ve had reports of gusts in excess of 70 mph — of course, we have the dry brush and, as always, terrain is something we have to deal with,” Gonzales said. “Now that we have aircraft grounded, it does make it a little more difficult but we have numerous resources on scene, and our goal is to control the fire and protect homes.”
He urged residents to listen to evacuation orders and be prepared to flee even if they haven’t been officially advised to do so yet.
“Just be ready to go, and of course always listen to the radio, keep on top of updates and hopefully we can get this thing contained soon,” he said.
Pat Grath, 78, was making breakfast when a stranger pounded on her front door to inform her of the evacuation orders. The Ridge Valley woman has no family on the West Coast.
“I just panicked. I started crying,” McGrath said. “I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m stressed and I don’t know what to do.”
Her voice was faint as she reclined into her seat at the Quail Hill Community Center with a beige cardigan draped over her.
“I was hoping there would be food or water, but I only got a bottle of water from a woman here earlier,” she said. “There’s a fountain down the hall, but I forgot my cane and my legs don’t work too well. I think your body doesn’t work as well when you’re stressed.”
It was about 8 a.m. when 24-year-old Sungho Hong was awakened by his parents. Hong said he got up and went to look outside at the billowing brown smoke moving over the top of the hill behind their home.
But the fire was nowhere near the community, so his parents went off to work and Hong logged into his computer for his online courses at Cal Poly Pomona.
In the middle of his political science class, he had to leave the house. He drove his black Mercedes to the bottom of the hill.
“It’s all I can do,” he said.
Sitting in his car watching the flames in the distance, he said he felt nervous. He also thought about having to email his professor to let him know why he left class.
Several minutes later, Hong got a call from his parents.
His mom spoke in Korean.
“It’s fine over here. I can always drive off,” he told her.
Back at the Vistas, firetrucks and firefighters were stationed along the hillside, ready to protect homes as the blaze made its way down, threatening dozens of homes in Knob Creek, Nest Pine and Leafy Pass.
Winds from the fire contributed to a large plume of smoke over the area, and the Orange County Health Care agency was urging residents to limit outdoor activity and keep doors and windows closed.
45-year-old Stanley Liu’s family was turned away from University Community Center early Monday morning as it was at full capacity.
His wife and son made their way to Rancho Senior Center. They were asked pre-screen questions before entering. Only a third of the room was occupied.
The family packed two suitcases of clothes and was prepared to rent out a hotel room for the night if the evacuation continued.
“We were forced to stay home for months because of the coronavirus, and now we’re being forced to leave because of the fire,” Liu said. “We didn’t want to leave but it wasn’t our decision. We’re worries about our safety and our home now.”
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for Sunday night through Tuesday afternoon amid the conditions, which also threatened tens of thousands of Southern California Edison customers with potential power shutoffs. The warning was in effect for all of Los Angeles and Ventura counties except for the Antelope Valley, as well as the entire Bay Area.
“We have very strong winds and very low humidities, and that’s causing ideal conditions for a very strong Santa Ana event with high fire danger,” said David Sweet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “This is very typical for this time of year, but this one is very strong.”
Wind gusts of up to 80 mph have already led the weather service to upgrade the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys to high wind warning conditions, noting that a “wave” of winds could crash down into the foothills along the 210 Freeway corridor Monday.
The winds were even stronger in higher elevation areas, with the weather service reporting a gust of 96 mph in the San Gabriel Mountains just south of Santa Clarita about 6 a.m. Monday.
Strong gusts of 60 to 80 mph were also expected in the mountains of Ventura County, and 50-mph winds could buffet Malibu and Hollywood Hills. A gale warning has been issued for Catalina Island, and marine officials are being advised to remain in port, seek safe harbor and secure boats and vessels for severe conditions.
High winds also led to the closure of Ontario International Airport. Departures have been canceled, and incoming flights have been canceled or diverted, according to the San Bernardino airport’s current flight information.
A spokesperson for the airport did not immediately respond to a request for information about when the runways would reopen.
The combination of winds and low humidity levels are expected to create “the most dangerous fire weather conditions we have seen since October 2019,” the National Weather Service said.
That month saw the ignition of multiple fires in the region, including the Tick fire, the Easy fire and the Getty fire, which destroyed at least eight homes and caused thousands to flee. The year’s most damaging fire — the Kincade fire in Sonoma County — ignited during an extreme wind event Oct. 23 and subsequently burned through more than 70,000 acres and destroyed more than 300 structures.
Although conditions across Southern California are cooler than they have been in months — the Antelope Valley will see sub-freezing temperatures Monday and Tuesday morning — Sweet said the low humidity is still cause for concern.
“You can be sure that the vegetation is bone-dry and tinder-dry, and so the fire threat is very high for very rapid spread of fire,” Sweet said Monday. “Along with that, you’ve got very strong winds, which means that lit embers and ashes could be carried for miles.”
In response to the increased fire danger across the region, Southern California Edison has warned of public safety power shutoffs that could affect as many as 120,000 customers in six counties, including 24,000 customers in Los Angeles County, 58,000 in San Bernardino County and 13,000 in Orange County.
The preemptive shutoffs come out of concern that wind can damage equipment, creating a spark that might ignite brush and lead to a wildfire.
“Public safety power shutoff is a last resort,” Edison spokesman Ron Gales said. “We only turn off customers’ power when certain thresholds have been breached, and those thresholds are a combination of wind speeds, relative humidity and the preponderance of tinder and dry fuels for fires.”
As of Monday afternoon, about 21,860 customers were without power, mostly in San Bernardino County. Another 105,000 remained under consideration for a preemptive shutoff, according to SoCal Edison’s website.
Residents should prepare flashlights, write down important phone numbers and review safety plans with family members, among other emergency preparedness tips in anticipation of power shutoffs, Gales said.
“Some of the most destructive wildfires in the history of Southern California have happened in just the last few months,” Gales said, “so Edison is doing its part to do as much as possible to make sure that our equipment is not involved in the ignition of a catastrophic wildfire.”
Pacific Gas and Electric had said it would cut power to nearly 1 million people in Northern and Central California starting Sunday amid dangerous fire weather. By Monday morning, more than 300,000 customers were without power.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.