Burning home
Firefighters outside a burning home in Laguna Niguel. Courtesy OnScene.TV

Fire crews extended the containment line Friday around the destructive 200-acre Coastal Fire in Laguna Niguel that devastated an upscale hilltop neighborhood, while the bulk of evacuated residents were permitted to return home.

The fire, which broke out at Wednesday afternoon, destroyed or damaged more than two dozen homes in a relentless wind- and terrain-driven march, but caused only minor injuries to two firefighters.

As of Friday morning, the official containment of the blaze grew to 25%, up from 15% Thursday night, and authorities were reassessing the situation, the Orange County Fire Authority reported. Fire crews were continuing to douse hot spots and evaluating damage to homes.

Roughly 900 homes were evacuated during the height of the fire, and the evacuation orders remained in place through Thursday night. On Friday afternoon, however, the orders were lifted for all but 131 homes. According to Laguna Niguel officials, homes remained evacuated on Coronado Pointe, Vista Court, La Vue, La Fleur, Le Port and Via La Rosas.

There was no immediate timeline on when the rest of the evacuations might be lifted. An evacuation center was established at the Laguna Niguel Community Center at 28751 Crown Valley Parkway.

But while firefighting efforts progressed, the damage was already done. Streets once lined with multimillion-dollar homes overlooking the Pacific Ocean were reduced to war-like scenes of rubble, evidencing a firefight that saw flames skipping from rooftop to rooftop as winds carried embers into the heart of the neighborhood.

OCFA Capt. Shane Sherwood told reporters Thursday evening a total of 20 homes had been destroyed, 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.”

Roughly 560 firefighters were still working the scene on Friday.

The fire began as a 50-foot-by-50-foot spot fire Wednesday afternoon. Within 45 minutes, it covered about 3 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.

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