The Coastal Fire began Wednesday afternoon around 2:45 p.m. in Aliso Wilderness Park and Wood Canyons and quickly spread to about 200 acres, the Orange County deputy field operations chief said. Fire Authority, TJ McGovern. The blaze then spread to the town of Laguna Niguel and tore through mansions along hillside streets in one of California’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
A firefighter was injured and hospitalized, McGovern said. About 900 homes are under evacuation orders, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Captain Virgil Asuncion said.
Jennifer McCoy, a resident of nearby Laguna Beach, told CNN she first noticed smoke coming from Laguna Niguel around 4:15 p.m. Less than two hours later, clouds of smoke had increased further, McCoy said.
“I walked to the mall below and the smoke was up maybe two to three times what it was before,” she said.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire.
While the cause of the fire is unknown and under investigation, “circuit activity” was occurring “within a short time” of when the brush fire was reported, Southern California said. Edison (SCE) in an initial incident report released Wednesday evening.
“Our information reflects circuit activity occurring near the reported time of the fire,” the power company said in the document.
While no further details were provided, the utility said a report was submitted “out of an abundance of caution as this is an event that is likely to receive significant public attention and /or a media coverage reporting requirement”.
Firefighters did not comment or confirm any details of circuit activity during a Thursday morning news conference.
“Our fire investigators are looking at this (circuit activity) right now and they’re going to be looking at all aspects of what could have caused this devastating fire,” McGovern said. “We don’t have the details, but our investigators will look into all possible causes.”
Even so, there was no particularly high fire danger on Wednesday, and officials and scientists were surprised by the speed and intensity of the blaze. Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said a bushfire like this was relatively minor. No more.
“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,” he said.
Despite the efforts of firefighters, the fire still “ran” onto first responders, officials said.
“We’re seeing spread in ways we haven’t seen before,” Fennessy said. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, a fire like this could have reached an acre, a few acres” before it was brought under control. But now “the fire is spreading through this very dry vegetation and taking off,” he said.
“We don’t have a fire season. It’s all year now, and these last four fires we just proved to all of us,” he said.
Residents of Laguna Niguel ordered to evacuate
Allan Aguilera, a resident of Laguna Niguel, told CNN he and his family decided to evacuate when they saw the extent of the flames from a vantage point in the neighborhood.
“When we reached 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, watching the fire before the winds changed and started pushing the flames closer and closer. At that point we decided to leave and to 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,” Aguilera added.
Fire crews used water from a pond at El Niguel Country Club in Laguna Niguel to help fight the flames as thick brown and gray smoke blanketed the area.
Crews were conducting damage assessments overnight and watching for hot spots or flying embers that could ignite more damaging flames, Fennessy said.
The area is also expected to get warmer in the coming days. Temperatures will be 10 to 15 degrees above average in California and the Southwest Friday through the weekend and early next week.
“Today will mark the start of a warming trend that will last through Saturday. Maximum temperatures will be above normal from today through Saturday, with Saturday being the hottest day of the next seven,” said the National Weather Service in Los Angeles.
From “fire season” to “fire year”
Winter and spring are typically rainy seasons for California, but this year has been anything but — especially in the southern half of the state. Los Angeles and Palm Springs are experiencing their third and second driest start to the year, respectively. Records in this region date back more than 70 years.
Statewide, January through April was the driest first four months on record, the US Drought Monitor reported Thursday. In the past week alone, extreme drought has gone from 40% of the state to 60%.
“We stopped talking about fire seasons,” Cal Fire communications battalion chief Isaac Sanchez told CNN. “The implication of that term is that if we’re in fire season, there’s a time of year when we’re not in fire season. That’s just not the case in California anymore.”
“It’s the result of climate change, it’s the result of the drought we’re seeing,” Sanchez added. “The Coastal Fire is a graphic example that you don’t need thousands of burned acres to affect you.”
CNN’s Brandon Miller, Ella Nilsen, Sharif Paget and Taylor Ward contributed to this report.