A fast-moving, wind-whipped wildfire left two firefighters critically injured and forced more than 90,000 residents in Southern California to evacuate Monday, while huge swaths of the Golden State went without power in an effort to prevent more flames, officials said.
The firefighters, 26 and 31, were injured while battling the Silverado Fire, which had charred at least 7,200 acres in and around the community of Irvine, southeast of Los Angeles, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said.
The firefighters — two of about 500 trying to contain the out-of-control blaze — suffered second- and third-degree burns across 65 percent and 50 percent of their bodies, the authority said. Both were intubated.
Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said the incident was under investigation. He said that powerful winds had kept aircraft from dropping retardant and water on the blaze, making ground crew firefighters like the two who were injured critical to extinguishing the flames.
“This is a tough fire, where we’re experiencing very high winds, very low humidities,” he said. “Our firefighters are some of the bravest, if not the bravest in the world.”
More than 90,000 people in 22,000 homes in the city of Irvine, about an hour south of Los Angeles, were under a mandatory evacuation order, fire officials said.
More than 5,000 homes in the nearby cities of Yorba Linda, Hidden Hills and Chino Hills were also told to flee after another blaze, the Blue Ridge fire, broke out Monday, Fennessy said.
In a tweet shortly after midnight Pacific time, the Orange County Fire Authority wrote that both the Silverado and Blue Ridge Fires were zero percent contained, and in a subsequent tweet early Tuesday the agency said that the Blue Ridge Fire had grown to more than 6,000 acres.
More than 15,000 people in that area were under mandatory evacuation, and overnight the Chino Valley Fire department tweeted that the mandatory evacuation zone and the evacuation warning zone had expanded in response to the spread of the Blue Ridge fire.
Officials said that no homes appeared to have been damaged in the blaze.
In Yorba Linda, where former President Richard Nixon was born, his namesake foundation tweeted an image of workers spraying down his childhood home with a garden hose.
In Irvine, the University of California shut down all campus activities shortly before 11 a.m. PT.
“It was completely terrible,” UCI graduate student Vanessa Montellano, 23, told NBC News, describing the scene outside her apartment Monday morning. “I was like wow, the skies were orange, the sun was bright red, the tree was swaying. It was almost not real.”
Thomas Anthony, a 32-year-old Irvine resident, was alarmed by the sound of high winds in the middle of the night before waking up to the heavy smell of smoke.
The sights, sounds and smells of a major fire evacuation was a jarring experience for Anthony, his wife, their 1 1/2-year son and pet puppy.
“Man, it seemed like armageddon to be honest,” Anthony said after safely taking refuge with in-laws 30 miles away in Downey. “It could have been the end of the world if that’s what was really happening.”
Unseasonably warm, dry temperatures and high winds throughout California have led to planned power outages to curb the threat of electrical wires sparking wildfires.
About 355,000 homes and businesses served by San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric were in the dark Sunday and Monday, impacting about a million Californians, officials said.
Meanwhile, closer to the Silverado Fire, roughly 20,000 homes and businesses were without power as a safety precaution by early Tuesday, according to Southern California Edison. The company said it was considering shutting off electricity for another 20,000 customers.