More than 90,000 people fled their homes near Los Angeles on Monday as two fast-spreading and uncontained wildfires raged across more than 14,600 acres (5,900 hectares), blocking key roadways and critically injuring two firefighters.
The larger Silverado Fire erupted early in the morning in the foothills of Irvine, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles, and quickly spread, fueled by dry conditions and erratic winds that prevented firefighting aircraft from flying.
“Firefighters continue to battle flames throughout the night on the Silverado Fire. More than 8,000 acres have burned but we have no reports of structures lost at this time,” Orange County Fire Authority said in a Facebook update Monday night.
A second fast-growing blaze in Yorba Linda, about 17 miles north of Irvine and dubbed the Blue Ridge Fire, erupted early afternoon Monday and had already scorched more than 6,600 acres, also forcing evacuations.
“It’s nuts — even inside the car, my eyes, my nose and my throat stung,” said Frederic Tournadre, a French man whose company in Irvine sent all its employees home.
The Silverado inferno quadrupled in size by afternoon, jumping a highway and covering the area with a huge plume of smoke and ash.
“We have emergency evacuation orders here in the city of Irvine that are impacting approximately 90,800 residents,” Shane Sherwood, a division chief at Orange County Fire Authority, told reporters.
The National Weather Service warned that the combination of low humidity, dry vegetation, and strong winds had created “the most dangerous fire weather conditions” this year.
It said the region will remain under a red flag warning — signifying a high risk of wildfire — through Tuesday evening.
“New fire ignitions in Los Angeles and Ventura counties will likely have very rapid-fire growth, extreme fire behavior, and long-range spotting, resulting in a significant threat to life and property,” the Weather Service said.
Officials said the two injured firefighters sustained second- and third-degree burns and both had to be intubated at an area hospital.
“I got an opportunity to talk to members of their families and spend time with both firefighters in the emergency room while they were being treated, but they were not in a position where they could speak with me,” Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennesy told reporters.
He added that winds of 20 to 40 miles per hour (mph), with gusts up to 60 mph, had made it extremely difficult for the 500 firefighters trying to control the flames.
– Dry conditions, high winds –
“Any time winds are that bad you can’t fly, and that certainly has an impact on both hand crews and bulldozers and firefighters at the end of those hose lines,” he said.
The Silverado and Blue Ridge fires were burning as California and much of the US west is under major fire risk because of dry conditions and strong seasonal winds.
More than four million acres have been devoured this season by flames in California alone, where 31 people have died in some of the largest fires in the state’s history.
Evacuations have been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic which has hit the Golden State hard and hampered the work of firefighters.
The state fire agency Cal Fire said Monday that more than 4,000 firefighters are battling 22 wildfires, with 34 million people under red flag warnings.
It said that wind gusts upwards of 80 miles (130 kilometers) an hour were expected in mountain areas of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
The critical fire weather prompted Southern California Edison to shut off power to hundreds of customers in the two counties in a precautionary move to avert any electrical equipment from sparking blazes.
State officials have pointed to climate change as a significant cause of the wildfire surge.
Climate change amplifies droughts which dry out regions, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to spread out-of-control and inflict unprecedented material and environmental damage.