Temperatures were cool as the coastal fire swept into a community of huge ocean-facing homes in Laguna Niguel.
But the fierce winds from the Pacific Ocean were enough to wreak havoc as the fire swept through terrain dried up by heat and climate change.
“It’s so heartbreaking,” said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, whose district also includes Laguna Niguel. “It started out as three to five acres, and then it went to 40 acres in a millisecond and from there it got out of hand.”
Winds have been a factor in its spread, but the size of the houses has also made it difficult to contain the fire, Bartlett said.
“If you look at the size of the houses, there’s so much combustible material that they burn quickly, and then the wind kicks in and the flames can just jump from house to house,” Bartlett said. “We hope that as evening hours approach the wind will die down and the firefighters can really get in and do their job.”
“Visibility isn’t great with the wind, but I know our firefighters are doing pretty much everything they can on the ground and from the air,” she added.
An estimated 20 houses – perhaps more – were destroyed. The fire brigade came to prevent more houses from going up in flames.
Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Department, said the year-round destruction highlighted the danger of fires in Southern California, even in cool conditions.
“It’s sad to say we’re getting used to this a little bit,” Fennessy said. “The wind we experienced today is normal wind. … We’re seeing spread in ways we’ve never seen before. The fire spreads very quickly in this very dry vegetation and rises.”
Ongoing droughts in California and the western United States have made vegetation so dry that it doesn’t take much for the fuels to ignite, Fennessy said.
The fire was not lit or fanned by the desert’s notoriously dry and hot Santa Ana winds.
According to Brandt Maxwell, a meteorologist with the San Diego Weather Service, the National Weather Service recorded high Pacific winds in Orange County throughout Wednesday afternoon, including gusts of up to 50 mph in parts of the county.
However, the wind blew in with a dry mass of air and didn’t carry much moisture, and the humidity remained low, which likely contributed to the spread of the fire, Brandt said.
Vegetation across the province had already seen little rain. Between October and April, the rainy season in Southern California, less than 7 inches of rain fell at the nearby John Wayne Airport, nearly 40% less than usual, Brandt said.
And the year before, the area was even drier, at less than 4 ½ inches.
“I think it’s just disheartening that we’re already seeing a fire that’s so aggressive and it’s only May. Usually this is something we see later in the summer and especially in the fall,” Maxwell added.
Bartlett said residents who live near the fire area but have not yet been evacuated should collect their belongings and be ready to vacate their homes quickly if asked.
The wind pushed the fire into the Coronado Pointe neighborhood so quickly that residents fled without having time to pack much, she said.
“People really need to heed that message because it’s so hard for firefighters when they’re trying to put out fires and also rescue people who have stayed in their homes when they should have gone,” Bartlett said. “The last thing we want is for anyone to put their life in danger.”