LOS ANGELES — Authorities on Thursday were trying to determine the cause of a brush fire that burned at least 20 homes in Laguna Niguel, fueled by winds and dry conditions caused by California’s intense drought.
The probe is still in its early stages, but Southern California Edison issued an initial report to state regulations saying that “our information reflects circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time of the fire.”
No other details were provided.
“Our thoughts are with the community members whose homes have been damaged and those who were evacuated because of the Coastal fire, and we’re coordinating with fire agencies as needed to ensure firefighter safety,” said David Song, a spokesman for the utility.
Song said Edison’s report — which is required for certain types of events — is intended to put the California Public Utilities Commission “on notice of an incident, so that it can conduct its own investigation.”
“Our top priority is the safety of customers, employees and communities, which is why we continue to enhance our wildfire mitigation efforts through grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices,” he added.
Some of California’s most destructive fires have been caused by power lines damaged by winds, including the Paradise inferno and the massive 2017 blazes in wine country. Edison faced more than half a billion dollars in fines from the California Public Utilities Commission last year related to several big fires, including the Thomas and the Woolsey.
The Coastal fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in a coastal canyon near the Pacific Ocean in an upscale section of south Orange County. Hundreds of residents fled as the flames swept into a gated community of multimillion-dollar homes overlooking the ocean.
Firefighters worked into Thursday morning trying to prevent the blaze from burning more houses. The fire has charred 199 acres, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.
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.”
OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said at least 20 homes had been destroyed.
The destruction underscores the year-round danger of fires in Southern California, even in cool conditions.
“It’s sad to say that we’re getting kind of used to this,” 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.”
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.
Gusts reached 30 mph in parts of Orange County on Wednesday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brandt Maxwell. The winds drove the flames across drought-parched hillsides.
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.
Vegetation across the county had already seen little rainfall. Between October and April, Southern California’s rainy season, less than 7 inches of rain fell at nearby John Wayne Airport, nearly 40% less than normal levels, Maxwell said.
And the previous year, the area was even drier, with less than 4 ½ inches.
“I guess it’s just disheartening that we’re already seeing a fire that’s this aggressive and it’s only May. Usually this is something that we see later on in the summer and especially in fall,” Maxwell added.
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 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.