Authorities were trying to determine the cause of a bushfire that burned at least 20 homes in Laguna Niguel on Thursday, fueled by winds and dry conditions caused by California’s intense drought.
The probe is still in its early stages, but Southern California Edison issued a report to state regulations stating that “our information reflects circuit activity occurring near the reported time of the fire. Our investigation is ongoing. No other details were provided.
Some of California’s most destructive fires have been caused by damaged power lines, including Heaven’s Hell and the 2017 Massive Wine Country Fires. Edison faced more than half a billion dollars in fines from the California Public Utilities Commission last year due to several large fires, including the Thomas and the Woolsey.
The Coastal Fire erupted Wednesday afternoon in a coastal canyon near the Pacific Ocean in an upscale section of southern Orange County. Hundreds of residents fled as flames spread through a gated community of multimillion-dollar homes overlooking the ocean.
Firefighters worked until Thursday morning to prevent the blaze from burning other homes. The fire charred 199 acres, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.
Sara Nuss-Galles watched the fire grow from her home atop the Via Estoril ridge in Laguna Niguel for more than an hour on Wednesday afternoon before deciding it was time to leave. Smoke choked the hills as ash fell over the city.
“My clothes have been smelling from the hour I spent in the house,” she said. “It’s just plumes of smoke. It’s very scary.
OCFA chief Brian Fennessy said at least 20 homes were destroyed.
The destruction underscores the danger of fires year-round in Southern California, even in cool weather.
“It’s sad to say we’re getting used to this,” Fennessy said. “The winds we experienced today are normal winds. … We see it spreading in a way that we have not experienced before. The fire is spreading very quickly through this very dry vegetation and is taking off.
Unlike many wildfires in the region, the Coastal Fire was not fanned by Santa Ana winds from the desert, but by strong gusts from the Pacific Ocean.
Gusts reached 30 mph in parts of Orange County on Wednesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Brandt Maxwell said. The winds drove the flames to the parched hills.
Persistent drought conditions in California and the western United States have left vegetation so dry that it doesn’t take much for fuels to ignite, Fennessy said.
Vegetation across the county had previously seen little rainfall. Between October and April, Southern California’s rainy season, less than 7 inches of rain fell near John Wayne Airport, nearly 40% less than normal levels, Maxwell said.
And the year before, the area was even drier, with less than 4 ½ inches.
“I guess it’s just disheartening that we’re already seeing such an aggressive fire and it’s only May. Usually that’s something we see later in the summer and especially in the summer. fall,” Maxwell added.
Authorities received the first 911 calls reporting a fire about 50 feet by 50 feet near a water treatment plant, Fennessy said.
Crews launched an immediate attack, but the fire quickly spread through the canyon, he said. The steep terrain made it difficult to get water hoses and manual crews through the area.
Efforts to contain the blaze have been further complicated because the area is covered in thick vegetation that Fennessy says likely hasn’t burned in decades.
Los Angeles Times