A fire driven by strong ocean winds engulfed a gated community overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday, burning at least 20 homes in the latest sign of the dramatic impact of climate change and drought on California’s wildfire danger.
The coastal fire broke out on a cool but windy day and quickly spread, engulfing the canyon before burning the huge houses at the top of the ridge. Hundreds of residents fled from the fire, while firefighters spent the evening in fierce fighting between houses, trying to prevent the fire from spreading deeper into the block.
Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said at a news conference Wednesday night that about 20-plus homes were destroyed. The wind died down a bit, Fennessy said, but not before the fire expanded to 200 acres.
The devastation highlighted the year-round risk of fires in Southern California, even in cool conditions. Unlike many wildfires in the region, the Coastal Fire was fanned not by Santa Ana winds from the desert, but by strong gusts from the Pacific Ocean.
Wind gusts reached 30 mph in parts of Orange County on Wednesday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Brandt Maxwell.
“I think it’s just discouraging that we’re already seeing such an aggressive fire and it’s only May,” he said. “It’s usually what we see later in the summer and especially in the fall.”
“It’s sad to say we’re getting used to it,” Fennessy said. “The winds that we have experienced today are normal winds… We are seeing a spread that has not happened before. The fire spreads very quickly through this very dry vegetation and takes off.”
Persistent drought in California and the western United States has caused vegetation to become so dry that it takes very little time for fuel to ignite, Fennessy said.
Authorities received the first 911 calls reporting a roughly 50-foot by 50-foot fire near a water treatment plant, Fennessy said.
The brigades launched an immediate attack, he said, but the fire quickly spread up the slope into the canyon. The steep terrain made it difficult at first to bring water hoses and manual crews to the area.
Efforts to contain the fire have been made even more difficult because the area is covered in dense vegetation that Fennessey said has likely not burned in decades.
According to the chief, by the time he went to the scene, he saw “a huge column of smoke” and knew that what started as a small forest fire quickly turned into a significant event.
Sarah Nuss-Galles watched the fire grow from her ridgetop home on Via Estoril in Laguna Niguel for over an hour Wednesday afternoon before deciding it was time to leave. Clouds of smoke clouded the hillsides as ash fell on the city.
Coastal fire destroys homes in Orange County’s Laguna Niguel
“My clothes smell like the hours I spent in the house,” she said. “It’s just puffs of smoke. It’s very scary”.
Nuss-Galles and her husband, Arieh Galles, took some personal belongings and their two cats, Pitzel and Quetzel, and drove to a friend who was several miles away.
Along the way, they saw people parked on the sides of the roads, standing on the backs of their pickup trucks and in their trunks, watching the fire.
Around 5:30 p.m., deputies went door to door in her area to tell people to evacuate.
“It’s just awful,” she said.
“It was probably one of the most organized evacuations I have ever seen,” the fire chief said.
At an evacuation site set up at the Crown Valley Community Center, people gathered to watch the fire on TV.
Tim White, 54, fled his home in Laguna Niguel with his wife. He said he lives in the Monarch Summit area, south of the fire, and decided to evacuate on Wednesday before orders were given.
“My wife and I were working from home, we heard a plane fly over us and we thought, ‘This is a low plane,’” White said, standing outside the community center with his 17-year-old daughter.
It was a plane dropping flame retardant.
“We were walking down the block, we saw smoke and flames, and we fled,” White said. “I’m trying to stay calm. Helicopter reports look like they’re in our favor.
The center had snacks and water bottles on hand, and a separate room was opened for evacuees with pets.
Among them was Cindy Kramer, 55, who evacuated with her mother from her home in the Nigel Summit area near the fire, but the house has not yet been damaged.
“Our place didn’t have a mandatory evacuation, but everyone was leaving,” she said.
The 15-year-old resident of the Kramer district packed her clothes, passports and phones and set off, not knowing when it would be safe to return home and where she would spend the night.
“We have friends in the area,” she said. “Lucky I had gas this morning too.”
When Ginger Stickney got a call about a growing fire around 4:30 p.m. she hurried home from work in orange
, on the way calling a family member who brought her elderly cat Indy and her laptop.
“Are you trying
o be prudent – figure out what needs to be done first – and at the same time stay calm,” said the otolaryngologist, who has lived in Laguna Niguel since 2013. “When I left for work this morning, there was no fire. Who knows what will happen in the next few hours.”
Stickney’s neighbors on the hill along Pacific Island Drive were evacuating, and she didn’t wait for orders to leave.
After a quick stop to fill her car with supplies, she took shelter with her son and another family and began to follow the news.
“We’ll have a glass of wine, eat pizza and try to relax. My sister just called me to talk about a summer trip. I told her what was going on and she immediately sent me a Red Cross list of what to do,” she recalls, half laughing, half stressed as she described it.
Times staffer Tony Briscoe and Times Community News staffer Andrew Turner contributed to this report.