Firefighters mop up from brush fire
Firefighters mop up on a Laguna Niguel hillside. Courtesy Orange County Fire Authority

A 200-acre fire that devastated an upscale hilltop neighborhood in Laguna Niguel, destroying 20 homes and damaging 11 others, was 60% contained by lines of cleared vegetation, authorities said Sunday.

The Orange County Fire Authority said 456 firefighters were on the scene, using bulldozers and the heat-seeking capabilities of drones to seek out hot spots within the fire’s perimeter.

Evacuation orders were down from 900 to 71 homes, fire officials said. The streets where evacuation orders remain are Coronado Pointe, Vista Court, Via La Rosas and homes at 71. 72, 74, 76, 78 and 80 Vista Montemar.

The fire broke out at 2:44 p.m. Wednesday near the South Orange County Wastewater Authority’s Coastal Treatment Plant, destroying or damaging homes in a relentless wind- and terrain-driven march, but causing only minor injuries to two firefighters.

OCFA Captain Thanh Nguyen said Saturday that the two injured firefighters were treated and released.

“The emphasis today is to continue to seek out hot spots and mitigate any hazards to continue to open up areas,” Nguyen said.

There was no timeline on when the rest of the evacuation orders 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.

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.

OCFA Capt. Shane 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,” SCE spokesman David Song said. “… 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 had personnel and investigators on the scene Thursday.

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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