Thousands Flee Wind-Fueled Wildfires in Southern California

The Silverado Fire burns along the 241 State Highway Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Irvine, Calif. A fast-moving wildfire forced evacuation orders for 60,000 people in Southern California on Monday as powerful winds across the state prompted power to be cut to hundreds of thousands to prevent utility equipment from sparking new blazes. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

(CN) — Two intense wind-driven wildfires continued to burn out of control near Los Angeles on Tuesday morning, prompting 90,000 to flee their homes and severely injuring a pair of firefighters attempting to quell one of the blazes.

The Silverado Fire near the Orange County city of Irvine sparked Monday morning and has already grown to 12,600 acres. The blaze is just 5% contained.

The Orange County Fire Authority has issued evacuation orders for more than 70,000 residents of Irvine and another 8,000 have fled the nearby town of Lake Forest. No structures have been damaged so far. 

“We are dealing with extreme wind and erratic fire behavior,” said Greg Barta, a public information officer with the Orange County Fire Authority. 

Also in Orange County, the Blue Ridge Fire has so far blackened 15,000 acres, doubling in size since Tuesday morning. The blaze has destroyed or damaged 10 buildings and was zero percent contained as of Tuesday morning. The fire is near the community of Yorba Linda, where 2,500 residents have fled their homes. 

Several communities in nearby San Bernardino County have been evacuated as the seasonal Santa Ana winds have driven the fire into areas nearby several communities. 

The wind event has been dramatic, with gusts of 95 miles per hour on the ridges driving erratic fire behavior and making for a tough fight for the state’s firefighters. 

Weather forecasts for Tuesday call for a moderate calming of the winds, but gusts of 35 miles per hour are still expected along the ridgeline for much of the day. 

“We’re not out of this yet,” said Brian Fennessy, Orange County Fire Authority chief. 

It’s the type of wind event that prompted Pacific Gas & Electric to shut off power to several communities in Northern California, where similar wind events were anticipated. Over 350,000 homes and businesses lost power after PG&E cut electricity to avoid sparking a blaze. 

Two firefighters suffered severe burns fighting the Silverado Fire on Monday. Fennessy said they are being treated for severe burns covering at least 50% of their bodies.

While the two blazes do threaten communities, California Governor Gavin Newsom was quick to praise firefighters and noted 42 fires had broken out during the past 24 hours. Quick responses have limited most of them to a few acres, he said.

“Cal Fire doesn’t get credit for saves; they deserve credit for saves and the extraordinary work they do every single day that doesn’t generate headlines, is also deserving of praise,” Newsom said Tuesday afternoon. 

Newsom said the weather has presented a nearly unprecedented challenge. Kirkwood Resort, just south of South Lake Tahoe, recorded wind speeds of 140 mph, and hurricane-force gusts were present in most of the state throughout Monday. 

The fires come in the aftermath of a historic wildfire season, where large blazes churned through much of the state in September and October. So far this year more than 4 million acres have gone up in flames, a record for the state. 

The August Complex became the largest fire in state history, burning more than 1 million acres across six Northern California counties.

Despite entering the wetter phase of California’s seasonal precipitation cycle, the state remains dry with its forests relegated to tinder box status. 

Forest mismanagement combined with the effects of a changing climate have made the state more susceptible to huge catastrophic wildfires in recent years, many of which have resulted in significant property damage and deaths. At least 85 people died in the Camp Fire in 2018, the deadliest wildfire in state history.

So far in 2020, 31 people have been killed in wildfires with many more unaccounted for. 

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