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Brush fire forces evacuation of small Southern California city

Gusty winds fanned flames quickly

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

(Updated Feb. 11, 2022, 11 a.m. ET.)

Evacuation orders were issued Thursday morning after a brush fire erupted in the Laguna Beach area of Southern California.

The blaze, dubbed the Emerald fire, was reported just after 4 a.m. PT near the Emerald Bay community and had scorched about 145 acres, according to a 9:30 a.m. update from Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy. The fire was 5% contained at that time, but crews made progress through Thursday night. The fire was 20% contained as of Friday morning.

Related: What does ‘containing a wildfire’ actually mean?

Despite winter rain and drastic drought relief, something sparked the fire, with the flames fanned quickly by high winds.

Gusts of 27 mph were reported in the Laguna Beach area at about 6;30 a.m., a couple of hours after the fire started. That was just enough to fan the flames. In the Moro Canyon area, winds were gusting as high as 45 mph.

Also, a heat wave began Wednesday, when the high in Laguna Beach hit 80 degrees. This was 12 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service, and broke the record of 79 degrees.

The Laguna Beach Police Department issued a mandatory evacuation order for Irvine Cove and both north and south Emerald Bay, according to a city of Laguna Beach news release, and a voluntary evacuation warning was issued for all of North Laguna. An evacuation center was opened in Irvine, 15 miles inland from Laguna Beach.

At one point, homes were being threatened by the fire, according to the news release.

Four air tankers have responded to the fire, along with five water-dropping helicopters, more than 75 engines, eight strike teams and five hand crews, Fennessy said.

“At this time I’m feeling pretty confident that we got a pretty good handle on this fire right now,” Fennessy said.

Fennessy added that this was the only fire burning in California and that crews are currently “resource rich.”

Officials asked residents in evacuation areas to be patient about returning to their homes. Despite progress being made, the fire is still dangerous because of the windy conditions.

“Residents will not be allowed in until it’s safe,” Fennessy stated.

Fennessy thanked the community of Emerald Bay for creating defensible space around their homes.

“While the fire did spread rapidly, when it got into those areas where there was good defensible space, that fire laid down as it should,” Fennessy said.

No homes have been damaged in the area, which last burned in the Laguna fires in 1993, according to Fennessy. Several structures were lost in that blaze.

A section of California State Route 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) was closed for a while, but was reopened later Thursday.

All schools in the Laguna Beach Unified School District were closed Thursday, according to a tweet from the school district.

Fennessy said the cause of the fire is still under investigation. There are power lines in the area and an arson unit was on scene.

“It’s very early, It’s premature. … I don’t want to speculate on a cause,” Fennessy said.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.