Firefighters slowly built a containment line Thursday around the roughly 200-acre Coastal Fire in Laguna Niguel that devastated an upscale hilltop neighborhood, destroying or damaging more than two dozen homes in a relentless wind- and terrain-driven march, but causing only minor injuries to two firefighters.
The fire, which broke out at 2:44 p.m. Wednesday near the South Orange County Wastewater Authority’s Coastal Treatment Plant, was listed as 15% contained as of late Thursday afternoon — the first measure of any containment reported by fire crews since the blaze erupted.
But while the firefighting effort progressed, the damage was evident. Streets once lined with multimillion-dollar homes overlooking the Pacific Ocean were reduced to war-like scenes of rubble, evidencing a night that saw flames skipping from rooftop to rooftop as winds carried embers into the heart of the neighborhood.
Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Shane Sherwood told reporters a total of 20 homes had been destroyed as of Thursday evening, and 11 others were damaged by flames.
Two firefighters sustained minor injuries fighting the blaze, but both were evaluated at a local hospital and released, Sherwood said.
He said that while most of the flames had died down Thursday, the danger was still present.
“We still had afternoon winds and we expect the weather to get hotter and drier over the next two days,” he said. “That’ll still continue to challenge all of our firefighters in our efforts toward containing this fire.”
Evacuation orders will remain in place overnight Thursday as the roughly 550 firefighters on the scene work to continue dousing hotspots and extend the containment line. Fire and sheriff’s officials said about 900 homes remained under evacuation orders.
According to the sheriff’s department, mandatory evacuation orders were in effect in Laguna Niguel for the area north of the intersection of Flying Cloud Drive and Pacific Island Drive to the intersection of Highlands Avenue and Pacific Island Drive, along with neighborhoods accessed from Niguel Road, west of Highlands Avenue.
The area south of Flying Cloud Drive and Pacific Island Drive to the intersection of Pacific Island Drive and Crown Valley Parkway is under a voluntary evacuation warning.
Evacuation warnings that had been issued Wednesday in nearby Laguna Beach were all lifted Thursday.
An evacuation center was established at the Laguna Niguel Community Center at 28751 Crown Valley Parkway.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Virgil Asuncion said he understood residents’ desire to return to their homes, but he said authorities want to ensure the area is safe before people are allowed to repopulate the area.
“It is vital that it is safe to repopulate for the residents and for our fire personnel fighting the fire out there,” he said. “The worst-case scenario would be allowing people back into their homes then having them to re- evacuate. We ask for patience from our residents.”
The fire began as a 50-foot-by-50-foot spot fire Wednesday afternoon. Within 45 minutes, it covered about three acres, then quickly grew to 30 acres, then 150, then 200 by Wednesday evening.
The flames spread quickly as they tore through thick brush on the hillside, aided by ocean winds that sparked spot fires ahead of the main blaze. The fire pushed its way uphill, advancing on Aliso Summit Trail and into the neighboring multimillion-dollar estates.
The flames crested a hilltop and advanced into an exclusive neighborhood, swallowing homes along La Vue and Coronado Pointe near the Aliso Summit Trail. The flames advanced even as fixed-wing planes dropped fire retardant on the hillside in hopes of slowing the advance of the flames. Several water-dropping helicopters were also employed in the firefight.
Sherwood said the relentless march of the blaze was caused by a combination of dry brush, fierce winds and the uphill terrain.
“When all three of those components come together, there is very little that the firefighting efforts can do,” he said. “The biggest thing that we want to do is get the folks out of the way. That’s where the evacuations come into place. And so that’s unfortunately what we had. … It was really those fuels being as dry as they were, the strong winds and the alignment on the topography is what created the devastation.
“We are very fortunate it is not more homes and we have no loss of life, which is fantastic and in our minds is success.”
The cause of the fire remained under investigation, although Southern California Edison sent a letter to the state Public Utilities Commission reporting “circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time” of the fire, but it was uncertain if it contributed to the start of the fire.
“We submitted an initial Electric Safety Incident Report to the California Public Utilities Commission. SCE is required to submit an ESIR to the CPUC on certain types of incidents. … Our information reflects circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time of the fire. …The submission of this report to the CPUC is intended to put them on notice of an incident so that it can conduct its own investigation,” SCE spokesman David Song said.
SCE had personnel and investigators on the scene Thursday.
“Our thoughts are with the community members whose homes have been damaged and those who were evacuated because of the Coastal Fire, and we are coordinating with fire agencies as needed to ensure firefighter safety,” Song said. “Our top priority is the safety of customers, employees and communities, which is why we continue to enhance our wildfire mitigation efforts through grid-hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices.”
California secured a fire management assistance grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure the availability of resources to battle the fire, Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.
The grant is provided through funds from the federal disaster relief fund and enables local, state and tribal agencies responding to the fire to apply for 75% reimbursement of their eligible fire suppression costs.
Orange County also approved an emergency proclamation Thursday aimed at ensuring all available resources are available to fight the blaze.
“This emergency proclamation allows the county to fully deploy all available resources, actions, and measures deemed necessary to ensure the safety and welfare of Orange County residents and property,” according to a statement from the county. “Assistance from other local agencies in the Southern California area is supplementing local resources.”
A hotline number for residents was established at 714-628-7085. An animal services information number is 949-470-3045, ext. 0.
Information on evacuations was being posted online at ocsheriff.gov/coastalfire.
Sara Nuss-Galles, who lives on Via Estoril, told the Los Angeles Times she watched the fire grow for more than an hour before she evacuated the area Wednesday.
“My clothes smell from the hour I spent in the house,” Nuss-Galles told The Times. “It’s just plumes of smoke. It’s very scary.”
Most schools and offices in the Laguna Beach Unified District were open and operating normally Thursday. Students at Moulton Elementary School in Laguna Niguel attended classes at Wood Canyon Elementary out of an abundance of caution, according to multiple reports.
In Los Angeles county, firefighters Thursday beat out relatively small fires in Brentwood, Long Beach and South El Monte.