Fires sweep through Orange County, driving tens of thousands from their homes

A pair of wind-driven wildfires raced toward neighborhoods in Orange County Monday, critically injuring two firefighters, forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate and smothering much of the region with smoke.

The larger of the blazes, the Silverado fire, broke out shortly after 6:45 a.m. in the brush country around Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads, burning more than 7,200 acres as Santa Ana winds pushed it west to the suburban edge of Irvine and Lake Forest. By Monday evening, more than 70,000 people were under evacuation orders in the foothills.

Two firefighters on hand crews were severely burned as they battled the flames, according to Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy.

The firefighters, ages 26 and 31, were both intubated after suffering second- and third-degree burns over half their bodies, Fennessy said.

“This is tough for me, tough for all my firefighters and certainly for the families of my two injured firefighters,” Fennessy said during a news conference outside the Orange County Global Medical Center, where the firefighters were being treated.

“They’re gravely injured,” he said. “We’re doing all we can for them.”

Details on how the firefighters had been overrun by flames were not available.

Later in the day, the smaller Blue Ridge fire erupted in Santa Ana Canyon — a notorious wind tunnel said to have given the blustery Santa Anas their very name.

The flames spread quickly as the fire pushed west toward Yorba Linda, threatening the town’s Hidden Hills community and forcing the evacuation of some 20,000 residents, officials said. By late Monday night, the blaze had engulfed 6,600 acres, and one home was damaged.

The combination of winds and low humidity levels were expected to create “the most dangerous fire weather conditions we have seen since October 2019,” the National Weather Service said.

“We have very strong winds and very low humidities, and that’s causing ideal conditions for a very strong Santa Ana event with high fire danger,” said David Sweet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “This is very typical for this time of year, but this one is very strong.”

The agency issued a red flag warning through Tuesday afternoon.

Wind gusts of up to 80 mph led the weather service to upgrade the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys to high wind warning conditions, noting that a “wave” of winds could crash down into the foothills along the 210 Freeway corridor Monday.

The winds were even stronger in higher elevation areas, with the weather service reporting a gust of 96 mph in the San Gabriel Mountains just south of Santa Clarita about 6 a.m. Monday.

The winds were lifting ash and soot left earlier this month from the Bobcat fire back into the skies, further choking out Southern California with bad air.

The conditions forced Southern California Edison to warn customers in all of Los Angeles and Ventura counties except for the Antelope Valley that power could be shut off to lower chances of fires being sparked by downed power lines.

As of Monday afternoon, about 21,860 customers were without power, mostly in San Bernardino County. An additional 105,000 remained under consideration for a preemptive shutoff, according to Edison’s website.

The strong winds were hindering firefighting efforts: Water-dropping aircraft had to be pulled off the Silverado blaze around 10:30 a.m. and crews weren’t sure when they’d be able to get back in the air, said Capt. Ben Gonzales of the Orange County Fire Authority. The aircraft remained grounded through the afternoon.

In all, 500 fire personnel were battling the Silverado fire and 200 were on scene at the Blue Ridge fire, officials said.

In Irvine, many parks were closed because of the fires and high winds. UC Irvine said it was suspending campus operations for the day because smoke and ash were making the air hazardous.

Trash cans and palm fronds were swept along empty streets in evacuated neighborhoods.

Lana Salameh, 45, had just dropped off her two youngest children at school and returned home in Irvine’s Eastwood community when she realized the sky was a dull orange. Trees were falling from heavy winds and smoke was seeping into the house, but she had not been informed that school was canceled.

She hustled back to Eastwood Elementary School to grab her 9-year-old daughter, Farah Abdelbari, whose tears were soaking her pink mask. She then picked up her 11-year-old son, Omar.

“They were scared. It wasn’t easy,” Salameh said. “My kids were crying, but we had to leave.”

They grabbed their passports and some bananas before arriving at an evacuation center set up at Quail Hill Community Center, which was reaching capacity.

Inside, about 30 people sat at socially distanced desks while small dogs were tied to table legs. Many were searching laptops for news reports of the fires. Salameh’s children got to work on school assignments.

Esther Lee, 55, and dozens of others waited in the parking lot for spots to open inside.

Hours before, Lee had been packing at her home in Lake Forest when she received a mandatory evacuation notice at 9:30 a.m. Looking outside, she saw palm trees bending hard in the wind and smoke pouring down from the hill. She knew what she had to do.

Lee rushed to put important documents in her car and drove to a nearby park to coordinate with other family members.

“We didn’t have much time, and I didn’t want to stay too long,” Lee said. “We’re just staying put for now because the winds can be so unpredictable.”

Pat McGrath, 78, was making breakfast when a stranger pounded on her front door to inform her of the evacuation orders. The Irvine woman has no family on the West Coast.

“I just panicked. I started crying,” McGrath said. “I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m stressed and I don’t know what to do.”

Her voice was faint as she reclined into her seat at the Quail Hill Community Center with a beige cardigan draped over her.

“I was hoping there would be food or water, but I only got a bottle of water from a woman here earlier,” she said. “There’s a fountain down the hall, but I forgot my cane and my legs don’t work too well. I think your body doesn’t work as well when you’re stressed.”

Times reporters Faith E. Pinho, Andrew Campa, Hayley Smith and Joe Mozingo contributed to this report.

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