Two Orange County Fire Authority firefighters were critically injured Monday battling a wind-fueled brush fire that sent flames racing across terrain in Santiago Canyon, forcing evacuations of nearly 91,000 people in the Irvine and Lake Forest areas, threatening structures and blocking key roadways.
The blaze erupted for unknown reasons at 6:47 a.m. in the area of Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads, and by late Monday afternoon had blackened 7,200 acres, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said.
The evacuation orders have affected about 90,800 residents, the fire chief said late Monday afternoon.
Irvine Mayor Christina Shea said the city opened up eight facilities to shelter evacuated residents and several quickly filled up. Irvine Police Chief Mike Hamel said city officials were working with the American Red Cross to provide overnight shelter for residents with no place to go. The city’s animal shelter was open to house pets.
“We’ve been fortunate to not lose any structures yet,” Fennessy said early this evening.
The injured firefighters are 26 and 31 years old. Both sustained second- and third-degree burns about 12:15 p.m., one over 65% of the body and the other over half the body, according to Fennessy said. Both firefighters were intubated at OC Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, he said.
“I got an opportunity to talk to members of their families and spend time with both firefighters in the emergency room while they were being treated, but they were not in a position where they could speak with me,” Fennessy said. “Please keep these firefighters in your thoughts and prayers, and their families. We’re going to do the same.”
The two firefighters were “at the heel of the fire where it started,” he said.
“I know them personally,” Fennessy said. “They’re gravely injured. Their families are with them. I was with them when their families arrived. Obviously, it’s very emotional. We’re giving them all the support we can.”
High winds compromised the aerial firefighting effort, with all aircraft grounded by mid-morning due to gusts that rendered water drops ineffective, while also making flying treacherous for pilots. Winds of 20 to 40 mph were reported, with gusts up to 60 mph.
“This is a tough fire,” Fennessy said. “We’re experiencing very high winds, very low humidity… Any time winds are that bad you can’t fly, and that certainly has an impact on both hand crews and bulldozers and firefighters at the end of those hose lines. Air attack is very important, but still it’s the firefighters on the ground that put out that fire.”
Fire officials were hopeful they will be able to make air drops Monday evening when wind velocities are expected to lessen, Fennessy said.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for the Orchard Hills community north of Irvine Boulevard from Bake Parkway to Jamboree Road Monday morning. The evacuation order affected roughly 20,000 homes and 60,000 residents, according to Irvine police Sgt. Karie Davies. Schools in the area were also evacuated, Davies said.
According to the city of Irvine, evacuation centers were established at:
— University Community Center, 1 Beech Tree Lane;
— Quail Hill Community Center, 39 Shady Canyon Drive;
— Los Olivos Community Center, 101 Alfonso Drive;
— Harvard Community Center, 14701 Harvard;
— Rancho Senior Center, 3 Ethel Coplen Way;
— Las Lomas Community Center, 10 Federation Way; and
— Turtle Rock Community Center, 1 Sunnyhill.
By late morning, many of the centers were already filled, and another shelter was established at Village Church of Irvine, 77 Post.
The city and Irvine Unified School District announced mandatory evacuations of Northwood High School and Portola Springs, Eastwood, Stonegate, Loma Ridge, Canyon View and Santiago Hills elementary schools. Voluntary evacuations were issued for Brywood, Northwood, Cadence Park, Beacon Park, Cypress Village and Woodbury elementary schools, according to the IUSD.
The Tustin Unified School District evacuated Orchard Hills School and Hicks Canyon and Myford elementary schools. Orchard Hills students were taken to Beckman High School, where they can be picked up by their parents. Hicks Canyon and Myford students were released to parents at the school sites.
Although structures were reported to be threatened and there were some reports of buildings already burned, fire authorities had not confirmed any structural damage as of early Monday evening. Aerial footage from the scene showed fire crews dousing flames that appeared to have destroyed a commercial structure near the 241 toll road.
The southbound Riverside (91) Freeway to the Foothill Transportation Corridor (241) toll road was closed and the northbound 241 was close at Portola.
The Eastern Transportation Corridor (133) northbound was closed at Irvine and eastbound Chapman-Santiago Canyon was closed at Jamboree and Santiago Canyon from Silverado Canyon was closed, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Florentino Olivera.
“It’s bad,” Olivera said of the traffic backing up on the Santa Ana (5) and 91 freeways, as thousands of people tried to flee the area. “The fire’s moving pretty fast so our closures are moving too as it’s jumping (roads).”
Southbound state Route 91 was also closed in the area north of the 241 Freeway.
OCFA officials said the flames jumped the 241 Freeway shortly after 9 a.m.
The fire sent a major plume of smoke over the entire region, creating unhealthy air across a wide area. The Orange County Health Care Agency urged residents in affected areas to stay indoors, limit outdoor activity, keep windows and doors closed and run air conditions to filter the air.
Southern California Edison had power cut off to 440 customers in Orange County late Monday morning due to the wildfire threat, but another 12,792 customers were under consideration for power shutoffs to prevent fueling the blaze.