Saturday, May 27

Winter wildfire burns Southern California homes

LOS ANGELES — A wind-driven wildfire burned at least two Southern California homes Thursday and another caused a scare in coastal communities as drought and weather conditions more like summer than winter demonstrated that fire has become a year-round threat in the state.

A blaze erupted Thursday afternoon in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier near Rose Hills Memorial Park. The blaze spread uphill to a cul-de-sac of homes and two homes were gutted. About 200 firefighters aided by aircraft battled the blaze, which had only burned a few acres, fire officials said.

Firefighters were making quick progress controlling the fire, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Sean Ferguson told KCBS-TV.

Another fire erupted before dawn in hills above the Orange County community of Emerald Bay near Laguna Beach, and gusty Santa Ana winds carried a plume of smoke across the normally picturesque shoreline and out to sea.

Several hundred residents fled their homes before winds subsided and an influx of firefighters and aircraft slowed the Emerald Fire. Officials said 150 acres (61 hectares) burned but no homes were lost. The cause was under investigation.

While firefighters appeared to have prevented a repeat of an inferno that destroyed and damaged hundreds of Laguna Beach homes in 1993, it marked the second California wildfire this winter, following a January blaze near Big Sur.

“We no longer have a fire season — we have a fire year,” Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy told an Emerald Fire briefing. “It’s February 10. It’s supposed to be the middle of winter. We’re anticipating 80-, 90-degree (26.6-32.2 Celsius) weather.”

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Storms drained the state in December but then vanished. This week Southern California has had a heat wave as high pressure over the interior of the West sends extremely dry air toward the coast, creating the Santa Ana winds that raise temperatures, sap moisture from vegetation and elevate fire danger.

The prospect of winter no longer offering some protection from wildfire is ominous for a state that has been enduring huge conflagrations in recent years.

Last year, California wildfires scorched more than 4,000 square miles (104,000 square kilometers) and more than 3,600 structures burned, according to preliminary data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In 2020, a staggering 6,600 square miles (172,000 square kilometers) and nearly 9,250 structures burned. Cal Fire’s report on the 2020 fire siege noted: “Since 2015, the term ‘unprecedented’ has been used year over year as conditions have worsened, and the operational reality of a changing climate sets in.”

The US Drought Monitor’s report Thursday showed that the recovery started by the December deluge has stalled: More than 99% of California remains in drought, much of it categorized as severe.

The battle against the Emerald Fire benefitted from the rapid arrival of extensive firefighting resources: 75 fire engines, five helicopters, four air tankers, five hand crews and two bulldozers.

Fennessy said it was fortunate that the Emerald Fire was the only active wildfire in the state and there was no competition for resources, which he noted was not the case when the disastrous 1993 Laguna Beach fire occurred.

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But he pointed out that windy, dry and hot weather was forecast to continue for several more days and resources could still get stretched.

Fennessy said arson investigators were on the scene where the fire started. He confirmed that there were power lines in the area but added that he would not speculate on the cause.

“The fire was on the side of a hill. The way fire spreads I’d imagine it started somewhere below that. There were wires in the area but I don’t know,” he said.

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