LAGUNA BEACH (CBSLA) – A large brush fire erupted in Laguna Beach early Thursday morning amid powerful Santa Ana winds, hot temperatures and dry conditions, forcing hundreds of evacuations.
The Emerald Fire was first reported at 4:09 a.m., according to the Orange County Fire Authority. Video from Sky2 showed a wall of flames on the ridgeline above Emerald Bay, a gated community with dozens of large, multimillion-dollar homes.
As of Friday morning, the fire had burned 150 acres and was 20% contained. No homes have been damaged and there were no injuries.
Mandatory evacuation orders were initially issued for the Emerald Bay and Irvine Cove communities. Those were lifted Thursday afternoon as firefighters made solid progress on the blaze.
"We just heard the police coming by on the loudspeaker, 'mandatory evacuation,' maybe two or three minutes ago...So after I speak with you, I'll probably get in my car and head south," evacuee Dana Taschner told CBSLA's Kara Finnstrom.
An evacuation warning was also issued for North Laguna, which included all residents north of Broadway.
"When you look around here, you couldn't even tell there's a fire going on," Laguna Beach Fire Department Chief Mike Garcia told reporters. "And we're very close. There's an active fire going on, it's going the other way, you don't see it. So it's easy for everybody to think, 'Hey, it's OK, we need to get back into our house. It should be OK.' We're telling you it's not. This is subject to wind, to wind changes. And we're monitoring that very close. This is a large team effort, and we're taking safety very seriously."
The Pacific Coast Highway was closed for several hours between Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, but was reopened.
The Laguna Beach Unified School District also closed all its schools Thursday as a precaution.
Crews from multiple agencies battled the fire on the ground and in the air. There were five water-dropping helicopters, along with four CAL Fire air tankers dropping retardant on the blaze. OCFA Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said the plan was to use the air tankers to pretreat the ridgeline between north Emerald Bay and Newport Beach with retardant in order to hold the fire on the ridge.
At the height of the blaze, there were also 75 engines, eight strike teams, five hand crews and two bulldozers.
"The winds are expected is to continue to blow over the next few days," Fennessy said. "The fire is moving north. The fire skirted along the north end of Emerald Bay. It is moving towards the Newport Beach area, it's still a long way from Newport Beach. It's hung up on the ridgeline, I guess it would be the north side of Emerald Bay."
The fire was buoyed by strong Santa Ana winds, coupled with unseasonably warm temperatures in the mid-70s.
"Not only do we have the dry conditions, we have the dry vegetation, we haven't had a lot of rain at all the last couple of weeks...And then you pair that with these gusty winds, and then that fire just kind of grew, so fast. And then we're dealing with more of these winds right now, and then it's warm right now," CBS2 Meteorologist Amber Lee explained.
The last time the area saw a brush fire was in 1993, when several homes were destroyed. Fennessy noted that firefighters were significantly more prepared this time around.
"I think one of the biggest differences is that fire started many miles away...and it had time to get a head of steam on it by the time it got to the coast," Fennessy said. "Air resources were scarce. There were other fires burning at the time. We didn't have the coordination, we're talking about 1993...We didn't have the agreements in place. That same fire today would be handled much quicker, would be prioritized much faster. We'd have the aircraft we need. I think one of the key differences today is this the only fire in the state. We are resource-rich. If we need more, it's simply a phone call."
Evacuation centers were opened at the Laguna Beach Community and Susi Q Center, and the Los Olivos Community Center in Irvine. Evacuees can call the O.C. Emergency Operations Center with questions at 714-628-7085.
Meanwhile, a little further north, the city of Seal Beach announced that Gun Grove Park would be closed Thursday because of the fire danger brought on by the Santa Ana winds and the heat.
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