SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — More than 90,000 people have fled their homes in the dry foothill communities of eastern Orange County ahead of fires driven by fierce, warm winds and fed by thick brush. The fires, which expanded quickly, have critically injured two firefighters.
The Silverado and Blue Ridge fires are still relatively small, covering about 20,000 acres in Southern California as of Tuesday morning. But forecasts of continuing Santa Ana winds, some gusting as high as 80 mph, make the fires particularly threatening to several highly populated communities.
The cause of the Silverado Fire, which sparked up in the canyons east of Irvine early Monday and spread rapidly with the winds, is unknown. But Southern California Edison said it was possible its equipment started the fire, which under California law means it would be held liable for any damages.
The company had shut off power intentionally to customers in several counties during the past weekend, hoping to lessen the fire risk. More than 21,000 customers remain without power now, many in neighboring San Bernardino County. Southern California Edison disclosed to regulators last month that its equipment might have caused the late-summer Bobcat Fire that burned nearly 120,000 acres near Pasadena.
Pacific Gas and Electric, the state’s largest investor-owned utility, also is under investigation concerning the cause of the Zogg Fire, which started in September, killing four people and destroying 200 homes before it was contained.
The company, which serves much of Northern California, has shut the power off to more than 350,000 customers in recent days, including many living in the East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa, until the severe fire weather eases.
In the past few years, PG&E has been found responsible for some of the state’s most destructive fires and, facing more than $30 billion in liability, filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2019. In July, it emerged from bankruptcy with a court-approved reorganization plan.
So far, no homes or businesses have been burned in the Silverado or Blue Ridge Fires, which flared up on the edges of the Limestone Canyon Regional Park east of Irvine and Costa Mesa.
But officials are concerned that stiff, gusty winds are pushing the flames south toward such highly populated communities as Mission Viejo, which might soon face evacuation instructions. About 500 firefighters have been deployed to the firelines.
Already tens of thousands of Orange County residents are under mandatory evacuation orders, and families grabbed pets and go-bags Monday and Tuesday to get out of the way of the flames.
Smoke coated the skies over much of the county south of Los Angeles, creating a hazy, frightening backdrop for escape that has become all too common across the state in recent years.
Two firefighters were rushed Tuesday morning to the Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, northwest of where the fires burned. Medical officials told reporters that the firefighters were in critical condition and had to be intubated with second- and third-degree burns over half their bodies. They are 26 and 31 years old.
Speaking to reporters outside the medical center, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said the men were “gravely injured” and that “we are doing all we can for them.”
“This is tough for me, tough for all my firefighters and certainly for the families of my two injured firefighters,” Fennessy said.
The Orange County fires come amid the worst fire season in terms of acres burned in California history. Fires, initially concentrated southwest and north of San Francisco, have burned more than 4.3 million acres across the state this year amid record heat and little moisture.
A series of wildfires that burned together into a single blaze known as the August Complex One charred more than 1 million acres, the first time that milestone has been reached in California.
The climate here has turned to one of extremes. Often the wettest rainy seasons are followed abruptly by high heat, parching the flourishing vegetation into prime fire fuel.
A similar climate across the dry west also has led to severe fire seasons in Oregon and Colorado, where firefighters are struggling to control the two largest blazes in that state’s history. Snowfall over the weekend helped tamp down the flames, which already have burned more than 400,000 acres there.