Video: Wind-driven wildfire destroys 20 homes in Southern California; 1 firefighter injured

Crews from Orange County, Laguna Beach, Los Angeles County, CAL FIRE, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Anaheim have been fighting the blaze


Update at 1:37 p.m. CT May 12:

Nathaniel Percy, Josh Cain
The Orange County Register

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. — A once-fast-moving brush fire in Laguna Niguel remained at 200 acres overnight, as crews continued to work to protect homes and establish containment lines, authorities said in a Thursday morning briefing.

A firefighter battles a structure fire Wednesday in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
A firefighter battles a structure fire Wednesday in Laguna Niguel, Calif. (Photo/Marcio J. Sanchez/Associated Press)

Fire crews did not have a number yet for containment, but Assistant Chief TJ McGovern of the Orange County Fire Authority said firefighters “engaged in perimeter control and structure defense (and) worked aggressively during the night to continue to do those functions.”

The agency’s chief, Brian Fennessy, has said about 20 homes in Laguna Niguel had burned. Damage-assessment teams were out in the neighborhoods Thursday trying to drill down on what has been damaged or destroyed.

One firefighter was injured while battling the blaze and hospitalized Wednesday, McGovern said, with the extent of the injuries not disclosed.

About 900 homes remained under evacuation orders, with roads blocked off. The assistant chief said residents were really good about getting out of the area, allowing firefighters to do their work.

Deputies are combing the area, sheriff’s Capt. Virgil Asuncion said, to provide safety to residents and to deter any attempted burglaries.

The Fire Authority has received help from the Laguna Beach Fire Department as well as other city fire agencies in Orange County, McGovern said. Cal Fire has also provided air and ground resources, including helicopters and planes.

The fire was first reported just before 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, in Aliso Woods Canyon and quickly moved up steep terrain. When firefighters arrived, the blaze had consumed about an acre, McGovern said.

Two hours later, flames had crossed an access road and moved toward homes. By 7:30 p.m., 20 had burned.

The fire’s cause was under investigation.

Southern California Edison, in a report, said, “SCE submits this report out of an abundance of caution as it involves an event that may meet the subject of significant public attention and/or (a) media-coverage reporting requirement.  … Our information reflects circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time of the fire. Our investigation is ongoing.”

But the utility has provided no context of what that means. The Southern California News Group has requested elaboration of that statement.

A temporary shelter remained open for affected residents at Crown Valley Community Center on Crown Valley Parkway. The Mission Viejo Animal Services shelter was assisting with pet evacuations.

Evacuation warnings in Laguna Beach were lifted late Wednesday night as the fire continued moving away from that city.

Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for areas north of the intersection of Flying Cloud Drive and Pacific Island Drive, to Highlands Avenue and Pacific Island Drive, the OCFA said.

Voluntary evacuation warnings were in place for areas south of Flying Cloud and Pacific Island to Crown Valley Parkway.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday morning that funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was granted to help with fighting the Coastal fire. That funding will allow responding agencies to apply for 75% reimbursement of eligible fire-suppression costs.

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©2022 MediaNews Group, Inc.

Update at 8:49 a.m. May 12: 

Gregory Yee
Daily Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif.

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. — A fire fueled by intense ocean winds barreled into a gated community overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday, burning at least 20 homes in the latest sign of the drastic effects that climate change and drought are having on California fire danger.

The Coastal fire broke out on a cool but gusty day and spread rapidly, cresting up a canyon before burning huge ridgetop homes. Hundreds of residents fled the flames while firefighters spent the night in pitched house-to-house battles trying to prevent the blaze from spreading deeper into the subdivision.

The fire was 0 % contained, and a local emergency order remained in place in Laguna Niguel as of late Wednesday night, said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said at a Wednesday night news conference that an estimated 20- plus homes had been destroyed. Winds had died down a bit, Fennessy said, but not before pushing the blaze to 200 acres.

The destruction underscored the year-round danger of fires in Southern California, even in cool conditions. Unlike many wildfires in the region, the Coastal fire was fanned not by Santa Ana winds from the desert but by strong gusts coming from the Pacific Ocean.

Wind gusts reached 30 mph in parts of Orange County on Wednesday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brandt Maxwell, driving the flames across drought-parched hillsides.

"I guess it 's just disheartening that we 're already seeing a fire that 's this aggressive and it 's only May, " Maxwell said. "Usually this is something that we see later on in the summer and especially in fall."

"It 's sad to say that we 're getting kind of used to this, " the Orange County Fire Authority's Fennessy said. "The winds we experienced today are normal winds .... We're seeing spread in ways we haven't before. Fire is spreading very quickly into this very dry vegetation and taking off."

Persistent drought conditions in California and across the western United States have left vegetation so dry that it doesn't take much for the fuels to ignite, Fennessy said.

Authorities received the first 911 calls reporting a roughly 50- by- 50- foot fire near a water treatment plant, Fennessy said.

Crews launched an immediate attack, but the fire quickly made its way upslope into the canyon, he said. Steep terrain made it difficult at first to get water hoses and hand crews into the area.

Efforts to contain the blaze were further complicated because the area is covered by thick vegetation that Fennessy said probably hasn't burned in decades.

By the time he set out for the scene, the chief said, he saw a "tremendous smoke column " and knew what started out as a small brush fire was quickly turning into a significant event.

"The threat to life and property and firefighter life is extreme, " Fennessy said.

Sara Nuss- Galles watched the fire grow from her ridgetop home on Via Estoril in Laguna Niguel for more than an hour Wednesday afternoon before deciding it was time to leave. Smoke choked the hillsides as ash fell across the city.

"My clothes smell from the hour I spent in the house, " she said. "It's just plumes of smoke. It's very scary."

Nuss- Galles and her husband, Arie Galles, grabbed a few personal items and their two cats, Pitzel and Ketzel, and drove to a friend's home a few miles away.

Along the way, they saw people parked along the sides of the roads, standing on the beds of their pickup trucks and in their trunks watching the fire.

Around 5:30 p.m., sheriff's deputies went door to door in her neighborhood to tell people to evacuate.

"It 's just awful, " she said.

By around 7 p.m., hundreds of homes in Laguna Niguel had been evacuated.

Firefighting vehicles raced south on Pacific Coast Highway, entering through the Ranch, a local country club and golf course. Crews and resources from Orange County, Laguna Beach, Los Angeles County, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Anaheim were fighting the blaze.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory for parts of Orange County that will remain in effect through Thursday afternoon.

"It's so heartbreaking, " Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, whose district includes Laguna Niguel, said of the fire. "It started as three to five acres, and then it went to 40 acres in like a millisecond and went out of control from there."

The wind has been one factor in the spread, but the size of the homes has also made containing the blaze difficult, Bartlett said.

"When you take a look at the size of the homes, there 's just so much combustible material that they burn fast, and then the wind starts and the flames can just leap from house to house, " she said.

Julianna Shapiro, 52, couldn't take her eyes off the billowing smoke and flames less than three miles from her home.

"It takes your breath away, " Shapiro said as she stood outside watching her community burn.

At one point in the afternoon, ocean winds blew the smoke directly toward her home, making it difficult for her to see what was happening.

Her eyes watered, her chest hurt, and she thought of what she might pack in case of an evacuation in her neighborhood. Inside, she watched news reports showing multimillion-dollar homes erupt in flames.

Shapiro recognized one of them — a house listed on Zillow for $10 million.

"It 's just so hard to watch, but I can't not watch it, " she said. "It's basically our neighbors losing their homes. You feel so hopeless."

Fennessy, who arrived in Coronado Pointe as deputies were going door to door, praised residents for their cooperation.

"It was probably one of the most orderly evacuations I 've ever witnessed, " the fire chief said.

At an evacuation site set up at the Crown Valley Community Center, people gathered to watch the fire on a television.

Tim White, 54, fled his Laguna Niguel house with his wife. He said he lives in the Monarch Summit neighborhood, south of the fire, and decided to evacuate Wednesday before the order came.

"My wife and I were home working and we heard the plane flying overhead and we thought, 'That 's a low plane, '" White said, standing outside the community center with his 17- year- old daughter.

It was a plane dropping fire retardant.

"We walked down the block and we saw the smoke and flames, and we bugged out, " White said. "I'm trying to remain calm. The helicopter reports look like they're in our favor."

Snacks and water bottles were on hand at the center, and a separate room was opened for evacuees with pets.

Among them was Cindy Kramer, 55, who evacuated with her mother from her home in the Niguel Summit neighborhood near the fire, but the home so far was unaffected.

"Our place wasn't mandatory evacuation, but everyone was leaving, " she said.

A 15- year resident of the neighborhood, Kramer packed clothes, passports and phones and set off, unsure of when it would be safe to return home or where she would spend the night.

"We have friends in the area, " she said. "Lucky I got gas this morning too."

When Ginger Stickney got a call about the growing blaze around 4:30 p.m. she rushed home from her job in Orange, calling a family member while on the road who fetched her elderly cat, Indy, and her laptop.

"You 're trying to be calculating — figuring out what 's most urgent to do — while being calm at the same time, " said the audiologist, who has lived in Laguna Niguel since 2013. "When I left for work this morning, there was no fire. Who knows what will go down in the next hours."

Stickney's neighbors up the hill along Pacific Island Drive had evacuated, and she didn't wait for the exit orders.

After a quick stop to fill up her car with necessities, she took refuge with her son and other family and began monitoring the news.

"We're going to have a glass of wine, eat some pizza and try to decompress. My sister was just calling me to talk about summer travel. I told her what's happening and she right away sent me a Red Cross list of what to do, " she recalled, half laughing, "half stressing, " as she described it.

For Shapiro, nightfall brought calmer winds and renewed clarity.

She felt much safer, now able to see firetrucks and shining lights on the ridge. Watching the orange glow from her bedroom window, she thought about how climate change has supercharged blazes like the Coastal fire.

Shapiro used to think about the seasons as "fire, flood, earthquake and drought."

"Now it 's fire, fire and fire, " she said. "I do think we should be afraid of [climate change ]."

She thought of the future and how Californians can't give up.

"It 's hard to deny that things have been changing rapidly, " Shapiro said. "If we don't do something to turn it back, it can just get so much worse. And it's frightening."

Times staff writer Tony Briscoe and Times Community News staff writer Andrew Turner contributed to this report.

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(c)2022 the Daily Pilot (Costa Mesa, Calif.)

Original article: 

Gregory Yee
Daily Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif.

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. —  A brush fire fueled by intense coastal winds roared into an upscale Laguna Niguel subdivision Wednesday evening as it ballooned to at least 150 acres, burning multiple homes and forcing many to flee.

Cold winds coming from the Pacific Ocean pushed the Coastal fire up a rugged canyon, sending embers into homes and sparking spot fires in the Coronado Pointe area.

Television footage showed a row of sprawling, red-tiled homes at the tip of the canyon on fire, with smoke coming from several other homes deeper in the neighborhood.

Sara Nuss-Galles watched the fire grow from her ridgetop home on Via Estoril in Laguna Niguel for more than an hour Wednesday afternoon before deciding it was time to leave. Plumes of smoke choked the hillsides as ash fell across the city.

"My clothes smell from the hour I spent in the house, " she said. "It's just plumes of smoke. It 's very scary."

Nuss-Galles and her husband, Arie Galles, grabbed a few personal items and their two cats, Pitzel and Ketzel, and drove to a friend 's home a few miles away.

Along the way, they saw people parked along the sides of the roads, standing on the beds of their pickup trucks and in their trunks watching the fire.

Around 5 :30 p.m., sheriff's deputies went door to door in her neighborhood to tell people to evacuate.

"It's just awful," she said.

By around 7 p.m., hundreds of homes in Laguna Niguel had been evacuated. The blaze broke out in Aliso Canyon, near the South Orange County Wastewater Authority treatment plant.

Firefighting vehicles raced south on Pacific Coast Highway, entering through the Ranch, a local country club and golf course.

Authorities blocked off the street to other traffic and were also blocking off Nyes Place.

The destruction underscored the year-round danger of fires in Southern California, even in cool conditions. Temperatures were in the mid-60s, and wind gusts topped 20 mph.

At 5 :51 p.m., Orange County Fire Authority officials tweeted that the fire had grown to an estimated 183 acres, but they downgraded the figure to 150 acres five minutes later.

Television footage showed several homes on fire in the area. Orange County fire officials could not immediately be reached for information on how many homes were burning.

KABC-TV Channel 7 reported that 13 homes had burned.

Video from a KABC helicopter showed flames and heavy smoke moving up hillsides toward homes in the subdivision.

Fire crews dropped fire retardant, marking a strip of ground just outside the subdivision red, the video showed.

Two tankers were flying overhead dropping the fire retardant, KABC reported. A helicopter was also dropping water near the fire's origin.

Both the Laguna Beach and Orange County fire departments were on the scene.

Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park was closed because of the fire, Orange County parks officials said around 3 :15 p.m.

As of 4 :35 p.m., evacuation orders were in place for communities near Pacific Island Drive and Coronado Pointe, according to the Orange County Sheriff 's Department. A voluntary evacuation warning was issued for the Balboa Nyes neighborhood, the city of Laguna Beach said.

A temporary shelter has been opened at Crown Valley Community Center, 29751 Crown Valley Parkway, according to Laguna Niguel city officials. Those with questions were directed to call (949 ) 362- 4300.

A live map and information on all evacuation areas and centers can be found at ocsheriff.gov /coastalfire, officials said.

Smoke was visible across Orange County.

Times staff writer Hannah Fry and Daily Pilot staff writer Andrew Turner contributed to this report.

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(c)2022 the Daily Pilot (Costa Mesa, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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