Two California firefighters critically injured as weather set to stoke blazes

Guardian staff and agency
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA</span>
Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

California prepared for another round of dangerous fire weather on Tuesday as crews fought a pair of fast-moving blazes in the south that critically injured two firefighters and left more than 100,000 under evacuation orders.

Forecasts predicted fierce Santa Ana winds up to 50-80mph (80-129km/h) at times over much of southern California, with some of the strongest gusts howling through Orange county, where two blazes sped through brushy hills near major urban centers. Winds were back on Tuesday morning, although not to the earlier extremes.

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A fire that broke out around dawn on Monday prompted evacuation orders for thousands of homes in the area of Irvine, while a few miles away another blaze did the same in the Yorba Linda area. More than 100,000 people were told to flee the fast-moving flames. One home was reported damaged.

Two firefighters, one 26 and the other 31 years old, were critically injured while battling the larger blaze near Irvine, according to the county’s fire authority, which did not provide details on how the injuries occurred. They each suffered second- and third-degree burns over large portions of their bodies and were intubated at a hospital, officials said.

In northern California, the fiercest winds of the fire season fueled nearly a dozen small blazes on Sunday night before easing on Monday. All the fires were quickly contained.

The easing of winds allowed the utility Pacific Gas & Electric to begin restoring power after the largest of five safety shutoffs this year. At its peak, PG&E blacked out about 345,000 customers, an estimated 1 million people, in 34 counties.

A red-flag warning of extreme fire danger remained in effect into Tuesday morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains and some coastal and valley areas, with warnings extending into Tuesday evening for some higher elevations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Southern California Edison reported to the state’s Public Utilities Commission that it was investigating whether its equipment might have sparked the blaze in Irvine. The utility said a wire that lashed a telecommunications line to a supporting cable may have struck a 12,000-volt SCE conducting line above it.

SCE was among utilities that cut power to customers to prevent equipment from being knocked down or fouled by debris in the winds and sparking wildfires.

SCE cut power to about 38,000 homes and businesses, although it restored some power by Monday night.

The winds were so strong that firefighters had to ground their aircraft for much of the day in Irvine, though they got back up by late Monday afternoon and continued their work into the night.

Pat McGrath, 78, of Irvine, went to a shelter after a stranger pounded on her door on Monday as she made breakfast. The stranger told her about the evacuation orders.
“I just panicked. I started crying,” McGrath, who has no family on the west coast, told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m stressed and I don’t know what to do.”

Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable. October and November are traditionally the worst months for fires, but already this year 8,600 wildfires in the state have scorched a record 6,400 square miles (16,600 sq km) and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other buildings. More than 30 people have been killed in the fires.

Many of this year’s devastating fires were started by thousands of dry lightning strikes, but some remain under investigation for potential electrical causes. While the biggest fires in California have been fully or significantly contained, more than 5,000 firefighters remain committed to 20 blazes, including a dozen major incidents, state fire officials said.

“The conditions are very, very unsafe,“ said Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s incident commander, about the weather early this week.