Two Southern California wildfires that have forced nearly 100,000 people to evacuate are threatening to rip through nearby upscale neighborhoods as hurricane-force winds drive the flames over hillsides.
The blazes, in Orange County, are much smaller than some of the sprawling conflagrations that blackened huge swaths of Northern California over the past few months. But instead of burning remote forests, they’re raging beside densely populated subdivisions, threatening tens of the thousands of people and million-dollar homes.
Wind gusts and bone-dry conditions have made for some of the most threatening weather California has seen since the Camp Fire erupted in 2018, killing 85 people. They’re also the latest blow for a state that’s been battered by a succession of heat waves, power outages and wildfires that have burned a record 4.1 million acres this year.
“We have seen some really extraordinary wind events in the last 48 hours,” Governor Gavin Newsom said, noting that gusts have reached 88 miles per hour in Orange County and mandating masks for trees to limit the spread of the fires.
The Silverado Fire, burning on the hills above Irvine, grew to more than 12,000 acres and is just 5% contained. Edison International’s Southern California Edison may have played a role in starting the blaze, said Pedro Pizarro, Edison’s Chief Executive Officer, in an earnings call Tuesday.
The nearby Blue Ridge Fire is now 15,000 acres and burning uncontrolled, according to fire officials.
“We’re dealing with extreme wind and erratic fire behavior,” Orange County Fire Authority Captain Greg Barta said during a media briefing Monday night.
The winds will ebb Wednesday, with the highest risk across parts of Southern California in the mountains north and east of Los Angeles, where conditions will remain elevated.
Earlier forecasts had called for a much wider area to face more dangerous critical conditions, but the U.S. Storm Prediction Center has revised its outlook because the pressure gradient between the Great Basin area and California has decreased.
The Silverado Fire has prompted more than 90,000 people to flee. More than 750 firefighters are battling the blaze. More than 1,000 fire fighters are battling the Blue Ridge Fire near Yorba Linda, which has spurred more than 8,500 evacuations.
Mandatory evacuation areas in the Silverado Fire include new subdivisions such as Reserve at Orchard Hills and Portola Springs Village, where model homes developed for the Irvine Co. start at $1 million. The average list price of existing homes in Yorba Linda, near the Blue Ridge Fire, is $1.4 million, according Steven Thomas, a local housing economist.
Edison International, which owns the electric utility that serves Irvine, filed a report Monday with state regulators saying it appeared a wire attached to a telecommunications line may have come in contact with one of its power lines, possibly starting the Silverado Fire. The cause remains under investigation, and the company said it is cooperating with authorities.
“It is early to draw any definitive conclusions,” Edison’s Pizarro said.
The blazes came even after Edison, PG&E Corp. and other utilities cut power in some areas to prevent live wires from falling into dry brush during the wind storms. PG&E, the state’s largest utility, imposed the most widespread outages, cutting power to about 355,000 homes and businesses.
PG&E said late Tuesday that the danger of high winds had passed and it was working to restore service to all customers by Wednesday morning. About 45,000 customers remained without power, PG&E said.
Edison had turned off electricity to about 10,000 homes and businesses in Southern California. High wind warnings are in effect for Southern California through Tuesday night.
California received federal assistance to help cover the cost of battling the Blue Ridge and Silverado fires, Newsom announced Monday.
PG&E began resorting to preventative shutoffs after its equipment caused some of California’s worst blazes, forcing the company into bankruptcy last year. PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 in July after paying $25.5 billion to resolve fire claims.