A fast-spreading wildfire destroyed at least 20 homes Wednesday and forced the evacuation of nearly 1,000 homes in Orange County, California, in an ominous sign of a new normal for the area.
The coastal fire broke out around 2:45 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and quickly grew to about 200 acres, said TJ McGovern, deputy chief of operations for the Orange County Fire Authority. The fire then spread to the city of Laguna Niguel, destroying the mansions that lined the streets of one of California's most prosperous neighborhoods.
Flames engulfed entire houses and burned their interiors in one neighborhood as firefighters washed down nearby houses on the same street in hopes of saving them, footage fromSocio de CNN KCBS/KCALpresented.
One firefighter was injured and was taken to the hospital, McGovern said. Some 900 homes are under evacuation orders, Orange County Sheriff's Department Capt. Virgil Asunción said.
Jennifer McCoy, a resident of nearby Laguna Beach, told CNN she first saw smoke coming from Laguna Niguel around 4:15 p.m. Less than two hours later, the plumes of smoke continued to rise, McCoy said.
“I went to the mall and the smoke got maybe two or three times bigger than before,” he said.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire.
While the cause of the fire is unknown and under investigation, "circuit activity" occurred "in a timely manner" when the fire was reported, Southern California Edison (SCE) said in an initial incident report released Wednesday night.
Firefighters work to put out a burning building during a fire Wednesday in Laguna Niguel, California.
"Our information reflects circuit activity that occurred around the reported time of the fire," the utility said in the document.
While no further details were released, the utility said a report "was submitted out of an abundance of caution as this is an event that could meet significant public attention and/or media coverage requirements."
During a press conference on Thursday morning, firefighters would not comment or confirm details of the activity at the circuit.
"Our fire investigators are now looking into this (circuit activity) and will look into anything that may have caused this devastating fire," McGovern said. "We don't have details, but our investigators are looking into all possible causes."
A firefighter works to set fire to a building in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday.
The fire was fueled by wind gusts that reached up to 30 miles per hour in the area, according to close observations by the National Weather Service. This is in addition to the dry conditions of apersistent severe droughtthroughout the region, according to the latest US Drought Monitor.
Even so, the fire risk on Wednesday was not particularly high, and officials and scientists were surprised by the speed and intensity of the fire. Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said a fire like this used to be relatively small. No more.
“The fuel beds in this county, across southern California, across 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 was still "running" towards rescuers, authorities said.
“We are seeing the spread in a way that we have never seen before,” Fennessy said. "Five years ago, ten years ago, a fire like that could have grown to an acre, a few acres" before it was brought under control. But now "the fire is spreading and taking off in this very dry vegetation," she said.
Historically, wildfires in California peak in late summer and fall. But this is the fourth fire in Orange Countyhave seenso far this year, McGovern said.
"We don't have fire season. Now it's all year long, and these last four fires we've had have shown that to all of us," he said.
Laguna Niguel residents urged to evacuate
Several houses burned in the area.
Evacuation orders were in effect for Coronado Pointe Drive, Vista Court and Via Las Rosa in the Laguna Niguel Pacific Island area, and a reception area was set up at the Crown Valley Community Center for evacuees, the county sheriff's department said. orange inPress release.
Allan Aguilera, a Laguna Niguel resident, told CNN that he and his family decided to evacuate when they saw flames erupting from a neighborhood gazebo.
"When we got to the top, we saw the full extent of the fire and how fast it was spreading," he said. "There were tons of people in the area doing the same thing and watching the fire before the wind changed and started to push the flames closer and closer. At that point we decided to leave and prepare for a possible evacuation."
"The situation was incredibly tense, but we remained calm, gathered our most precious belongings... and carried out an early evacuation to prevent a potential shortage in the worst-case scenario," Aguilera added.
Firefighters responded to fires at several homes in the Aliso Woods Canyon area on Wednesday, photos provided.Partners with CNN KABCpresented.
Firefighters turned to water from a lake at El Niguel Country Club in Laguna Niguel to fight the flames as thick brown and gray smoke blanketed the area.
Crews conducted damage assessments overnight and monitored for hot spots or flying embers that could spark more damaging flames, Fennessy said.
It is also expected to get hotter in the region in the coming days. Temperatures will be 10 to 15 degrees above average across California and the Southwest Friday through the weekend and into early next week.
“Today will mark the start of a warming trend that will continue through Saturday. High temperatures will be above normal today through Saturday, with Saturday being the hottest day in the next seven days," the Los Angeles National Weather Service said.
From “fire season” to “fire year”
The fire started Wednesday afternoon and quickly spread to about 200 acres.
California and the western US are experiencing devastating drought conditions that have resulted in water restrictions in parts of the state. Last summer, Californialived its worst droughtin his record 126 years. And the next few months will not improve.
Meteorologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expect "continued and prolonged drought in the West, where below-average rainfall is more likely," the agency wrote in its statement.spring perspectiveMarch.
Late last month, Southern California officials asked businesses and residents in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties to do so.Reduce Outdoor Wateringup to one day a week.
Winter and spring are California's quintessential rainy seasons, but this year was the complete opposite, especially in the southern half of the state. Los Angeles and Palm Springs have their third and second driest starts to the year, respectively. Records in this region go back more than 70 years.
About 900 houses were evacuated in Laguna Niguel due to the fire, an official said.
Nationally, January through April were the driest four months on record, the US Drought Monitor reported Thursday. In the past week alone, extreme drought has increased from 40% to 60% of the state.
Drought in the region has left vegetation incredibly dry and fueled fires like the one in Laguna Niguel. The West is in a multi-year mega-drought that scientists recently reportedmost extreme for 1,200 years, and deteriorated by 72% due to human-caused climate change.
"We've stopped talking about fire times," Cal Fire Battalion communications chief Isaac Sanchez told CNN. “The implication of this term is that when we are in fire season, there is a time of year when we are not in fire season. That is no longer the case in California."
“It is a consequence of climate change, it is a consequence of the drought we are experiencing,” Sánchez added. "The Coastal Fire is a vivid example of not having to burn thousands of acres to have an impact."
CNN's Brandon Miller, Ella Nilsen, Sharif Paget and Taylor Ward contributed to this report.