Concerns loom that embers may restart the fire in the coming days as Southern California is expected to be plagued by abnormally high temperatures through early next week.
The fire, which has grown to about 200 acres, began Wednesday afternoon in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness park and quickly spread to the city of Laguna Niguel — home to some of California’s wealthiest neighborhoods — according to Orange County Fire Authority Assistant Chief of Field Operations TJ McGovern.
Temperatures will be 10 to 15 degrees above average across California and the Southwest beginning Friday and continuing into early next week, with forecast high temperatures topping 100 degrees in portions of California, according to CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward.
Two firefighters have been taken to the hospital with injuries and released as approximately 550 firefighters work to contain the fire, according to Orange County Fire Authority Division Chief and Incident Commander Shane Sherwood.
In an area that plays host to hillside mansions and multi-million dollar properties, the flames have engulfed and destroyed 20 homes and damaged at least 11 others, Orange County officials said Thursday evening.
This weekend will be particularly hot for the Southern California region. “Today will mark the start of a warming trend that will last into Saturday,” the National Weather Service in Los Angeles said on Thursday. “Max temps will be above normal today through Saturday, with Saturday being the warmest day of the next seven.”
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, though investigators say “circuit activity” was occurring a “close in time” to when the fire was reported, the South California Edison said in an initial incident report released Wednesday. The utility did not provide any more details on the circuit activity and fire officials did not comment or confirm any details during a press conference Thursday morning.
Officials surprised by sudden blaze
The speed and intensity of the Coastal Fire shocked officials and scientists who say there was not a high risk of fire Wednesday.
The winds that helped fuel the fire reached up to 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service. But the gusts were coming in off the Pacific Ocean, meaning they were cool and humid.
“The humidity was high, which isn’t necessarily optimal to get that kind of burning,” said Greg Martin, a meteorologist at NWS San Diego. “I was really surprised when I saw the smoke plume yesterday evening on my commute and wondered what was burning.”
“That was not what I would have thought would be an ideal situation, and yet we had a substantial fire,” he said.
Though the winds were not typical of high fire risk, the region is suffering from a prolonged intense drought, according to the US Drough Monitor. The dry brush and vegetation will increasingly feed fires like the ongoing blaze in Orange County, a local fire official says.
“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,” said Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy.
“We’re seeing spread in ways that we haven’t before,” he said. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, a fire like that might have grown to an acre, couple acres” before firefighters could get it under control. But now, “fire is spreading in this very dry vegetation and taking off,” he said.
Residents of several Laguna Niguel neighborhoods were under mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday and Thursday and city officials declared a state of emergency so resources could be accessed quickly.
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,” he added.
A new climate reality for the West
“It’s a result of climate change, it’s a result of the drought we’re seeing,” Issac Sanchez, Cal Fire’s battalion chief of communications, told CNN. “The Coastal Fire is a graphic example that you don’t need thousands of acres burned to impact you.”
“It’s way too early” for a fire like the Coastal Fire in Southern California, said Bill South, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Hanford. “This has the potential to be a very bad fire season. And as everyone knows, we’re in a drought here throughout the entire state of California.”
CNN’s Rachel Ramirez, Angela Fritz, Chad Myers, Ella Nilsen, Stephanie Elam, Christina Maxouris, Aya Elamroussi, Sarah Moon and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.