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Los Angeles Times

Southern California Edison reports ‘circuit activity’ at time of Coastal fire that destroyed 20 homes in Laguna Niguel

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 regulators 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.

The fire remains at about 200 acres, and an estimated 900 homes have been evacuated, officials said. Approximately 550 firefighters were battling the blaze as of late Thursday morning, according to Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Greg Barta.

Information about containment was not immediately available. But in a video update posted to Twitter, Barta said “crews worked diligently and very hard throughout the night and made great progress, and we expect that to continue today.”

TJ McGovern, assistant chief of operations for the Orange County Fire Authority, said crews worked hard Wednesday and overnight to establish containment lines. However, the fire is still smoldering and officials are concerned about coastal winds anticipated in the afternoon. Crews will be on scene widening the containment lines with bulldozers.

“We’re confident the fire is not going to escape those lines,” he said. “However, we’re not putting it out (as) a mop up stage because we still have to reinforce those containment lines. There’s still a lot of work to be done out there today.”

Thick smoke choked the Coronado Pointe neighborhood Thursday morning. Ash rained down on cars still parked in driveways and on trash cans that had been left along the curb. A firefighter attempted to hose pink fire retardant off a white Cadillac and BMW that had been abandoned on a circular driveway as flames approached the neighborhood. Officials said residents could see flames approaching as they fled their homes Wednesday afternoon. The flames were about 200 feet from their homes as they fled, leaving them little time to grab belongings.

A smoke advisory remains in effect near the burn area.

“I know it’s been a long night for the people of Laguna Niguel,” said county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett. “My thoughts and prayers go out to all the residents who have been affected by this terrible fire.”

No resident injuries have been reported. However, one firefighter suffered a medical emergency on the fire line and was taken to a hospital for evaluation, according to McGovern.

Wind-driven embers played a significant role in the early hours of the fire. The wind, paired with significant fire behavior, cast those embers down and threw them in front of the blaze. Such conditions can flare into new spot fires, Barta said.

“One of the things that’s truly devastating is when those embers get inside attic vents and catch vegetation right up next to the home on fire. That’s why we always advise people to have clearance around their homes,” he said.

Neighbors said they saw workers clearing defensible space around the homes days before the fire broke out.

The homes are newer construction, which can fare better in fire zones. But the extreme fire behavior and the strong winds created a toxic recipe.

“When you have a fire that’s wind driven like that with significant flame links that is moving so quick, the minute you get that flame up against a home or you get embers into the attic vents it’s really hard to control that,” Barta said. “Our firefighters did a great job. A lot of additional homes could have been lost had we not gotten in there so quickly.”

Sassan Darian held his cat, Cyrus, as he assessed the damage outside his father’s home on Coronado Pointe.

Darian, 38, had seen television footage showing homes that were still standing. But as he walked up the street Thursday morning, he discovered that was not the case for his family.

“It’s just surreal,” he said as he looked at his childhood home. “There’s just so many emotions.”

His family has lived on the street since he was 10. They loved the location — just a few miles from the beach — and the tight-knit feel of the community.

Darian was home Wednesday afternoon with his father, Ali; and his 7-year-old daughter, Artemiz, when they smelled smoke. He didn’t think much of it at first.

“There’s always a fire burning somewhere,” he said.

Then he saw the fire through the back windows. Helicopters were swirling above, calling for the neighborhood to evacuate.

He didn’t have time to grab anything except his family. His father wanted to stay behind with a garden hose to fight, but Darian pulled him out as the flames grew closer.

“I think we stayed about five minutes too long for safety reasons,” he said. “When we got outside fire trucks had already arrived and the heat was just overwhelming.”

His daughter was terrified by the ordeal, he said, and sobbed as they left the house.

Now, looking over the ruins of the two-story home that housed so many of his childhood memories, Darian couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. He smiled as he recalled a house party he threw years ago that was broken up by the police.

“I haven’t been able to walk through it yet, but I’m sure that will bring up more memories,” he said.

But he’s also grateful.

“All of our photos and videos are backed up on the cloud,” he said. “We all got out safely and that’s what matters.”

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said at least 20 homes had been destroyed. In a statement Thursday morning, county Supervisor Katrina Foley said the fire had burned 24 structures.

Officials said an assessment team is on site to evaluate the extent of the fire damage.

Orange County authorities proclaimed a local emergency in response to the fire Thursday. California has also secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will allow local agencies to seek reimbursement for some of the costs associated with battling the blaze, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Thursday.

“Local communities have been working around the clock to fight this fire and protect the citizens who live in the area,” U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Calif., wrote in an earlier letter to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. “Approving this request will help local authorities with the vital cost associated with fighting these fires, including the costs for emergency equipment, supplies, field camps and safety items.”

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.

The brush in the area is drought resistant, but has wilted during a yearslong dry spell. The fuel moisture is so low that even a normal coastal wind caused the fire to spread rapidly. Fennessy said the fire broke out on what he would call a “normal” day. It wasn’t a Santa Ana wind event and the humidity was high, around 70%.

“What we’re seeing that we haven’t seen in years past is these fires are starting and the vegetation is so dry that with any wind behind it —even a normal wind for that area — it’s going to spread faster than we’re used to and faster than we can get our units at the scene,” he said.

Fennessy said that, while he hasn’t walked the edge of the vegetation, he was in backyards during the blaze’s chaotic first hours on Wednesday. He said he did not see anything that would cause him to believe there was a real challenge with the defensible space around homes.

The severity of the fire was fueled by a combination of wind, dry vegetation and the steepness of the terrain.

“Once the fire hit the base of the hill below the homes it was like an arrow that just shot to the top,” he 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 1/2 inches.

“The high risk of wildfire will continue unless we develop an aggressive climate action plan for Orange County and invest more in fire prone areas in Irvine and South County,” Foley said in a statement. “We must replace dry hazardous vegetation, especially dead limbs and trees prone to spread fire, with drought tolerant plants and trees that retain moisture even in a drought, to reduce the chance of wildfire causing damage. The cost of investing in preventive measures pales in comparison to the cost to respond to the fire, the loss of property and, worse, life.”

Fennessy said the homes that he saw burn caught fire as a result of embers that blew into the attic space or became wedged into the roofing material.

“We weren’t experiencing, like we do on some of the Santa Ana wind fires, where one house catches and the radiant heat is just so much that the house next to it catches and then the one across the street catches,” he said. “I would say probably the higher percentage of those structures lost were really a result of ember intrusion and maybe the palm trees. It’s really unusual from a firefighter perspective when compared to a Santa Ana wind-driven fire.”

Fennessy watched Wednesday afternoon as firefighters saved a home even as the homes on both sides of it burned. The firefighters were spraying water to cool between the homes and keep the structure from being taken down by the flames.

Fennessy said the crews weren’t going to be able to save the homes that were already burning, but they could save the house in the middle.

“When you see photos of a big fire sometimes you’ll go back and wonder why did that one or two survive,” he said. “More times than not it was because firefighters were there protecting what we would call the exposures. What you’re seeing is a direct result of their efforts.”

The Coastal fire was first reported as a 50-by-50-foot spot fire near a water treatment plant, according to Fennessy.

The South Orange County Wastewater Authority said its treatment plant, located off Alicia Parkway, remained online as of Thursday morning and was using generator power.

This is Orange County’s fourth fire this year. The Emerald fire broke out in Laguna Beach in February. In March, the Jim fire broke out in the Cleveland National Forest and another ignited near Ortega Highway near San Juan Capistrano.

“We don’t have a fire season,” McGovern said. “It’s year round now and these last four fires that we’ve had just proved it to all of us.”