By Taylor Romine, Christina Maxouris, Aya Elamroussi and Eric Levenson, CNN
A rapidly moving brush fire destroyed at least 20 homes and forced the evacuation of nearly a thousand homes in Orange County, California, on Wednesday in a foreboding sign of the new normal for the region.
The Coastal Fire began Wednesday afternoon at about 2:45 p.m. in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and quickly grew to about 200 acres, Orange County Fire Authority Assistant Chief of Field Operations TJ McGovern said. The fire then spread into the city of Laguna Niguel and ripped through mansions along hillside streets in one of California’s richest neighborhoods.
Flames swallowed entire homes and burned through to their interiors in one neighborhood, while firefighters hosed down nearby houses on the same street hoping to save them, footage from CNN affiliate KCBS/KCAL showed.
One firefighter was injured and hospitalized, McGovern said. About 900 homes are under evacuation orders, Orange County Sheriff Department Capt. Virgil Asuncion said.
Jennifer McCoy, a resident of nearby Laguna Beach, told CNN she first noticed smoke coming from Laguna Niguel around 4:15 p.m. Less than two hours later, the smoke clouds had ballooned even larger, McCoy said.
“I walked down to the shopping center below and the smoke grew maybe two to three times what it was before,” she said.
Officials still looking for cause of blaze
While the cause of the fire is unknown and under investigation, “circuit activity” was occurring “close in time” to when the brush fire was reported, Southern California Edison (SCE) said in an initial incident report released Wednesday evening.
“Our information reflects circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time of the fire,” the power company said in the document.
While no other details were provided, the utility said a report was submitted “out of an abundance of caution as it involves an event that may meet the subject of significant public attention and/or media coverage reporting requirement.”
Fire officials did not comment nor confirm any details about the circuit activity during a news conference Thursday morning.
“Our fire investigators are looking at that (circuit activity) right now and they’re going to look at all aspects of what could have caused this devastating fire,” McGovern said. “We don’t have the specifics, but our investigators will be looking at every possible cause.”
The fire was fueled by gusty winds that reached up to 30 mph in the area, according to nearby observations from the National Weather Service. That is in addition to dry conditions from an ongoing severe drought in the entire region, according to the latest US Drought Monitor.
Even so, there was not a particularly high risk of fire on Wednesday, and officials and scientists were taken aback by the speed and intensity of the blaze. Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said a brush fire like this used to be relatively minor. Not anymore.
“The fuel beds in this county, throughout Southern California, throughout the West, are so dry that a fire like this is going to be more commonplace,” he said.
Despite the efforts of firefighters, the fire still “ran” on first responders, officials said.
“We’re seeing spread in ways that we haven’t before,” Fennessy said. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, a fire like that might have grown to an acre, couple acres” before it was under control. But now, “fire is spreading in this very dry vegetation and taking off,” he said.
Wildfires have historically peaked in the late summer and fall in California. But this is the fourth fire Orange County has seen so far this year, McGovern said.
“We don’t have a fire season. It’s year-round now, and these last four fires that we’ve had just proved it to all of us,” he said.
Laguna Niguel residents ordered to evacuate
Evacuation orders were in effect for Coronado Pointe Drive, Vista Court and Via Las Rosa in the Pacific Island area of Laguna Niguel, and a reception area for those who evacuated was set up at the Crown Valley Community Center, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release.
Laguna Niguel resident Allan Aguilera told CNN he and his family decided to evacuate when they saw the scope of the flames from a lookout point in the neighborhood.
“When we reached the top we saw the full scale of how big the fire was and witness how quickly it was spreading,” he said. “There were tons of people in the area doing the same, watching the fire before the winds changed and began pushing the flames closer and closer. At that point we decided to leave and go prepare for potential evacuation.”
“The situation was incredibly tense but we kept our cool, gathered our most valuable belongings … and made an early evacuation to avoid any potential bottle necking if the worst case scenario were to play out,” Aguilera added.
On Wednesday, firefighters responded to flames at multiple houses in the Aliso Woods Canyon area, photos from CNN affiliate KABC showed.
Firefighting crews resorted to using water from a pond at the El Niguel Country Club in Laguna Niguel to help fight the flames as thick brown and gray smoke blanketed the area.
Crews were conducting damage assessments overnight and monitoring for hotspots or flying embers that could spark more damaging flames, Fennessy said.
The area is also forecast to get hotter the next few days. Temperatures will be 10 to 15 degrees above average across California and the Southwest from Friday through the weekend and into early next week.
“Today will mark the start of a warming trend that will last into Saturday. Max temps will be above normal today through Saturday, with Saturday being the warmest day of the next seven,” the National Weather Service in Los Angeles said.
From ‘fire season’ to ‘fire year’
California and the Western US are experiencing devastating drought conditions that have led to water restrictions in parts of the state. Last summer, California endured its most severe drought in its 126-year record. And the upcoming months aren’t getting any better.
Forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are expecting “prolonged, persistent drought in the West where below-average precipitation is most likely,” the agency wrote in its spring outlook in March.
Late last month, Southern California officials asked businesses and residents in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties to reduce outdoor watering to one day a week.
Winter and spring are typically the wet seasons for California, but this year has been anything but — especially in the southern half of the state. Los Angeles and Palm Springs are off to their third- and second-driest start to a year, respectively. Records in this region go back more than 70 years.
Statewide, January to April were the driest first four months on record, the US Drought Monitor reported Thursday. Over the past week alone, extreme drought expanded from 40% of the state to 60%.
The region’s drought has left vegetation incredibly dry, providing fuel for fires like the one in Laguna Niguel. The West is in a multiyear mega-drought scientists recently reported is the most extreme in 1,200 years, and has been made 72% worse by human-caused climate change.
“We’ve stopped talking about fire seasons,” Isaac Sanchez, Cal Fire’s battalion chief of communications, told CNN. “The implication of that term is if we’re in fire season there’s a time of year when we’re not in fire season. That’s just not the case in California anymore.”
“It’s a result of climate change, it’s a result of the drought we’re seeing,” Sanchez added. “The Coastal Fire is a graphic example that you don’t need thousands of acres burned to impact you.”
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CNN’s Brandon Miller, Ella Nilsen, Sharif Paget and Taylor Ward contributed to this report.