Wind-Whipped Blaze Blackens 7,000 Acres in Orange County

The Bond Fire, driven by high winds, burns the hillsides west of Santiago Canyon Road near Silverado Canyon, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register via AP)

(CN) — Strong Santa Ana winds and dry conditions fueled a 7,200-acre wildfire in Southern California on Thursday, prompting officials to evacuate residents from their homes to flee the rapidly moving blaze.

The Bond Fire started as a house fire Wednesday night in Orange County’s Silverado Canyon region. The Orange County Fire Authority said Thursday the blaze is zero percent contained.

Fire officials said multiple structures have been damaged as of Thursday morning but could not immediately verify the number of structures or the degree of damage.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said at a press conference Thursday the Bond fire started as the result of a house fire that spread into nearby vegetation as a result of “erratic, strong Santa Ana winds.”

The high winds fueled an explosion of flames and carried the blaze further into the canyon region, Fennessy said, adding that mandatory evacuation orders will likely not be lifted soon.

“There’s still significant potential for growth,” Fennessy said of the fire. “Your safety is our greatest concern.”

The U.S. Forest Service said on Twitter before the press conference two of its firefighters were injured while battling the Bond fire.

“Two Forest Service firefighters were injured and taken to local hospitals for evaluation and treatment,” the agency tweeted. “No additional information is available at time.”

The South Coast Air Quality Management District and health officials are urging residents to limit outdoor activity to avoid exposure to smoke from the Bond fire and other nearby blazes.

LA County Health Officer Muntu Davis said in a statement current air quality can be damaging even for healthy people.

“It is difficult to tell where smoke, ash or soot from a fire will go, or how winds will affect the level of these particles in the air, so we ask everyone to remember that smoke and ash can be harmful to health, even for people who are healthy,” Davis said. “These precautions are particularly important for children, older adults, and people with heart or lung diseases.”

At least 500 firefighters are battling the flames across steep terrain with dense vegetation with assistance from water-dropping helicopters and other aircraft.

As the blaze advanced toward residential areas, emergency officials issued mandatory evacuations for Silverado, Williams and Modjeska canyons. On Thursday morning, officials extended the evacuation map to include the Cowan Heights and Lemon Heights communities in Orange County. 

An updated map of the mandatory and voluntary evacuation areas is available on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department website.

Officials said a temporary evacuation point staffed by the Red Cross is open at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, though no congregated sheltering is provided on site. 

At the school parking lot, Dominique Sukani and her family collected supplies from officials who also connected the family with an emergency voucher for shelter at a hotel in the area.

Sukani’s mom, Sue, brother Kevin and their pets were a few of the thousands of people under mandatory evacuation orders issued Thursday as the fire crept closer to their Portola Hills home.

Four members of the Sukani family – Sue, Kevin, Dominique and Egg the cat – collect emergency supplies at El Toro High School in Orange County, California after being evacuated from their home by the advancing flames of the 7,000-acre Bond fire. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias, Jr.)

“We have our fingers crossed that the fire doesn’t spread as much,” Dominique Sukani said in an interview.

The family was alerted about the fire Wednesday night through social media posts. By morning, the blaze had grown to over 3,000 acres and a voluntary evacuation order was now mandatory.

With limited cell phone signal, neighbors knocked on each other’s doors early Thursday as sheriff’s deputies blared evacuation orders throughout the neighborhood, Sukani told Courthouse News.

“It’s a similar situation to what we experienced with the Silverado fire,” Sukani said, referring to the blaze that scorched more than 13,000 acres in the same region in October.

As the Sukanis coordinated their next move, two other evacuated residents in the parking lot checked updates and followed news reports from their cars.

Kevin Fernandez, a Lake Forest emergency operations official, told Courthouse News he expects the lot to fill up Thursday evening once people leave work, children finish virtual classwork and families have had a chance to coordinate with each other.

Residents aren’t allowed to sleep in the school gym adjacent to the lot but they can sleep in their cars, Fernandez said. “We’re kind of a last resort for folks.”

In the parking lot of a shopping center in the city of Orange, about 30 minutes north of the high school, dozens of people sat in their cars and mobile homes after being evacuated.

In the cabin of a stock trailer parked in the lot, Aaron Christianson rested after working since 1 a.m to evacuate more than 80 horses from properties in the fire area near the city of Irvine.

Christianson, working under the direction of emergency support agencies, said he expects more horses will be evacuated as the day progresses.

Akira Shimbo, a resident of Silverado Canyon who evacuated early Thursday morning, walked across the parking lot to check in with his neighbors.

Shimbo told Courthouse News he came face-to-face with the flames Wednesday night after neighbors alerted each other using handheld radios about a fire near their homes.

“I walked out of my home and there was just a tower of flames,” Shimbo said.

Shimbo’s family gathered belongings, alerted other neighbors about the blaze and left their home to spend the rest of the night at a hotel.

By Thursday morning, Shimbo had applied for and received a Red Cross voucher for a hotel and continued to check in on his neighbors. 

“We have no idea if the house is even there or not,” Shimbo said. “We’re blind to what’s really happening.”

Residents are asked to stay in their vehicles as staff provide help.

Smoke from the Bond Fire will likely reach the southern area of LA County and has reduced air quality to unhealthy levels for residents in the region.

A 13,000-acre wildfire scorched the same area in October and forced at least 90,000 people to flee their homes. That fire, named the Silverado Fire, was also whipped up by strong Santa Ana winds.

Strong, dry winds that officials described Thursday as “near hurricane level” are buffeting the region and have pushed the flames across 4,000 acres.

Red flag warnings remain in effect across Orange and Los Angeles counties with winds clocked at 40 miles per hour in the area of the fire. The National Weather Service predicts gusts could top 70 miles per hour later in the day and could stoke more blazes.

Two fires burning in neighboring Riverside County, the Cerritos and Airport fires, have blackened 500 acres and 200 acres, respectively, according to fire officials. 

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