SANTA ANA – Orange County remained on high alert Tuesday as a pair of wind-driven wildfires continued their race toward populated areas, forcing 100,000 residents to evacuate and choking much of the region with smoke.
The larger of the blazes, the Silverado fire, broke out early Monday morning in the brush country around Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads. It had burned 12,535 acres by noon PDT Tuesday. At least 90,000 residents were under evacuation orders, and the fire was 5% contained.
The cause of the blaze, which is burning on hilly terrain in state lands, is not clear. But in a report to the state Public Utilities Commission, Southern California Edison said it was investigating whether its electrical equipment might have caused the fire. The brief report said it appeared that a “lashing wire” may have struck a primary conductor and that an investigation was underway.
At least two firefighters working on hand crews were severely burned as they battled the flames, according to Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy.
The firefighters, ages 26 and 31, were both placed on ventilators after suffering second- and third-degree burns over half their bodies, Fennessy said.
“This is tough for me, tough for all my firefighters and certainly for the families of my two injured firefighters,” Fennessy said during a news conference outside the Orange County Global Medical Center, where the men were being treated.
“They’re gravely injured,” he said. “We’re doing all we can for them.”
There were no official updates on their conditions Tuesday morning, Capt. Thahn Nguyen of the fire authority said.
Nguyen said their injuries were “pretty severe,” and he could not say whether they were expected to make a full recovery.
Hours after the Silverado fire ignited, the Blue Ridge fire erupted in Santa Ana Canyon – a notorious wind tunnel said to have given the blustery Santa Anas their name.
The flames spread quickly as the fire pushed west toward Yorba Linda, threatening the town’s Hidden Hills community. By noon Tuesday, the blaze had engulfed 15,200 acres and was zero percent contained. At least 10,000 residents had been evacuated. Ten homes had been damaged and 2,500 were still threatened.
The two fires have spurred multiple evacuation orders and warnings.
“This is absolutely a large mutual aid fire, a lot of resources from all over the state,” Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Jason Fairchild said Tuesday, noting that more than 1,700 firefighters are battling the two blazes. “And we have additional resources coming in from farther away.”
Facing flames that could threaten multiple homes at once in the county’s suburban sprawl, firefighters have been relying on their engines’ 500-gallon tanks to beat back flames instead of connecting to hydrants so the crews aren’t “anchored down,” Fairchild said.
If the water supply were to become an issue, many of the engines are outfitted with pumps that would allow them to pull water from homeowners’ pools, he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday said California had received a fire management assistance grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will allow the state to receive 75% reimbursements for firefighting efforts related to the Silverado and Blue Ridge fires. The grant is provided through the president’s Disaster Relief Fund on cost-share basis.
“I want to thank FEMA and our partners at the federal level for their support,” he said.
Newsom said 42 fires had ignited across the state in the last 24 hours, many fueled by fierce winds. He thanked the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, along with local firefighting agencies, for their quick work in suppressing most of the blazes.
“We talk in historic terms,” he said, “and I remind you that six of the top 20 wildfires in our state’s history have occurred in 2020.”
More than 4 million acres have burned this year, and wildfires across the state have resulted in 31 fatalities, he said.
Monday’s dangerous winds – which saw gusts of up to 80 mph fueling the aggressive blazes – were expected to begin dissipating Tuesday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.
“They’re not going to be as strong as they were yesterday,” said Casey Oswant, a weather service meteorologist in San Diego.
Oswant said Tuesday’s gusts should peak around 30 mph and might start to spread moisture when they changed direction and flowed back onshore as the day went on.
A red flag warning was to remain in effect in Orange County until 6 p.m., she said, and high wind warnings were to expire at 2 p.m.
But people should not “completely relax,” as dryness is still a concern across the region.
“Definitely avoid burning if necessary, and if you see a fire, call the authorities,” Oswant said. “The threat is definitely still there, even though the winds are coming down.”
Monday’s combination of intense winds and low humidity were considered some of the most dangerous fire weather conditions of the year. The weather service reported gusts of 96 mph in the San Gabriel Mountains just south of Santa Clarita.
The winds also carried ash and soot left from the Bobcat fire earlier this month back into the skies, further choking Southern California with bad air.
By Tuesday morning, the government’s air quality monitoring agency had reported that Southern California had the worst air quality in the nation, with parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties and the city of Corona all hovering in the “unhealthy” range.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory for Orange County through Tuesday. It also issued a windblown dust and ash advisory in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, warning that hazardous particulate matter from wildfire burn areas may be spread through the air.
The windy conditions spurred Southern California Edison to warn customers in all of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, except for the Antelope Valley, that power could be shut off Monday to lower the chances of fires being sparked by downed power lines.
As of Tuesday morning, about 20,537 customers were without power, mostly in San Bernardino County. An additional 18,500 remained under consideration for a preemptive shutoff, according to Edison’s website.