Mandatory evacuations have been ordered as firefighters battle a fast-moving brush fire that burned at least 4,000 acres in the Trabuco Canyon area on Monday afternoon, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.
The fire erupted around 1:30 p.m. in the Trabuco Creek area, which is a popular hiking trail that goes up to Santiago Peak, according to Jeanna Smith of the U.S. Forest Service.
By 2 p.m., the fire was swiftly moving “across the main divide” between Orange and Riverside counties in the Cleveland National Forest, OCFA tweeted. By the evening, ground crews and retardant drops were being deployed along the ridge in attempt to keep the blaze from crossing it.
The flames are moving east, away from Orange County and toward Santiago Peak, officials said.
The blaze — dubbed the Holy Fire — erupted at 75 to 100 acres and began to spread rapidly through rugged, inaccessible terrain a short time after igniting.
By 8:20 p.m., the fire had spread to cover about 4,000 acres with no containment, the Forest Service said.
Smith told KTLA she was not surprised at how quickly the fire grew.
“Given the weather conditions and the fuel moistures that I’ve been hearing about, you know and the drought conditions, it doesn’t surprise me that it is burning this fast in chaparral,” she said. “And that area hasn’t burned for quite a while, so we’re looking from 6 to 10 feet in some areas.”
By Monday evening, the flames were heading northeast, away from O.C. and toward the Temescal Valley, OCFA said. The agency was sending crews to Robinson Ranch, southeast of Trabuco Canyon, to monitor the fire’s activity.
Blaze forces evacuations, road closures
Residents in the communities of Trabuco and Holy Jim canyons were ordered to evacuate immediately. Evacuation orders also covered all campgrounds in the Trabuco Ranger District as well as the Blue Jay, Falcon and El Cariso campgrounds in the Cleveland National Forest.
An evacuation center was set up at the Bell Tower Community Center at 22232 El Paseo in Rancho Santa Margarita.
The following roads within the forest area were also closed: Trabuco Creek, Maple Springs, North Main Divide, Bedford and Indian Truck Trail.
Residents impacted by the evacuations are urged to call the public information hotline at 714-628-7085.
Fire officials had not said how many homes were threatened but confirmed one was damaged. Aerial video from Sky5 appeared to show at least three structures had been destroyed by the flames.
Because the area is fairly remote, it was important for resident to leave promptly, said Jake Rodriguez, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
“There’s kind of one way in and one way out from this canyon,” he said. “We asked people to leave early on hoping to get them out of the area before there were any problems.”
Two hikers had become stranded near the fire but were airlifted and flown to safety by an O.C. sheriff’s helicopter, officials said.
Local resident Tilson Shumatt told KTLA he and his wife were separately rescued by a sheriff’s air team as they became trapped by flames while trying to evacuate.
Shumatt said they rushed down the mountain in their car after spotting smoke, but the road was blocked by flames and impassable. They decided to go back up to their cabin to grab a few things.
“We’re in the cabin only five minutes, but that five minutes the flames had already come up over the hill — so those cabins are gone for sure,” Shumatt said. “We drove as far as we could, parked the car and ran.”
Shumatt said they were left with few options and struggled to outpace the fire’s progress.
“Every time we went uphill it was racing us and it was catching us,” he said. “We made it to the top of the hill, and that’s where finally a helicopter came down, picked us up and swept us away.”
Sheriff’s officials said the couple had entered a canyon area without cellphone reception but its crew was able to rescue them “before they were overrun by the fire.”
In addition to the fire threat, the flames were sending plumes of thick, dark-colored smoke high up into the air that was visible as far away as Burbank, according to the aerial footage. Burbank is roughly 55 miles northwest of Trabuco Canyon.
Several areas across three counties were likely to experience unhealthy air as a result of the smoke, the South Coast Air Quality Management District said.
These included northern, central and coastal Orange County, the Saddleback and Capistrano valleys; Corona, Norco, Riverside, Lake Elsinore, Banning Pass, Hemet and the Perris, Temecula and San Jacinto valleys in Riverside County; and the northwest, southwest, central and east San Bernardino Valley and east, west and central San Bernardino Mountains.
‘Hitting it with everything we have’
As the fire exploded in size, firefighters were doing everything they could to get a handle on the flames, according to Smith.
“We’re hitting it with everything we have, we’ve got air tankers, helicopters, engine and hand crews on this thing,” she said.
Although officials requested 10 aircraft, but with resources spread across several other massive wildfires burning in the state, they did not expect to receive the full allocation. However, aerial video showed Cal Fire’s 747 SuperTanker was on the scene.
Water drops would continue throughout the evening and overnight.
The flames were moving uphill Monday afternoon, meaning they were more likely to spread rapidly and display “more erratic and more dramatic fire behavior,” said Rodriguez with the Forest Service.
The steep mountain areas they were burning in are difficult to access, Rodriguez added.
“There’s a limited amount of roads that go into the fire area, so we have crews toward the heel of it and we’re moving crews around the flanks, but it’s very hard to get vehicles into the area,” he told KTLA. “A lot of it’s going to be done by hand crews, hotshot crews trying to access the area by ground and by foot.”
Crews also faced challenging weather conditions as they fought the blaze, with temperatures forecast to hit the upper 90s on Monday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. An excessive heat warning is scheduled to be in effect until 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Light winds of 10 mph were blowing in the area and humidity was around 27 percent in the mid-afternoon hours, the weather service said.
Around 600 firefighting personnel were on the scene Monday evening. Two O.C. Fire Authority handcrew members suffered heat exhaustion and were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, the agency said.
The Fire Authority has command of the incident until a USFS Incident Management team arrives at the scene, according to the Orange County agency.
Series of massive infernos burning across state
The Orange County fire was one of at least 16 major wildfires officials were working to control across California on Monday, burning hundreds of thousands of acres and claiming nine lives.
Monday evening, the Mendocino Complex Fire surpassed the Thomas Fire as the largest blaze ever recorded in California after it grew to more than 283,000 acres. It was 30 percent contained.
The deadliest and most destructive so far this year has been the Carr Fire, which continues to rage into its third week in Shasta County with 47 percent containment. Seven people have died in that inferno, which has destroyed 1,600 structures and scorched more than 164,000 acres.
And most of the world-renown Yosemite National Park is closed indefinitely as crews continue to battle the Ferguson Fire, also in its third week. Two fire personnel have perished in the fight against the 91,500-acre blaze, which was 38 percent contained Monday.
A series of red flag warnings were in effect across Southern California through Tuesday as sweltering temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds were creating fire hazards. A heat wave was expected to persist through Friday, bringing triple-digit temperatures to some inland areas.
Gov. Jerry Brown has said Californians should come to expect an increasing number of costly battles against out-of-control wildfires as climate change deepens drought conditions and creates weather extremes.