Firefighters take over a bushfire near Laguna Beach

A wind-driven brush fire that broke out in the hills near Laguna Beach amid high temperatures and low humidity forced residents to flee their homes early Thursday.

The blaze, dubbed the Emerald Fire, started around 4 a.m. in the wilderness area between Laguna Beach and the gated community of Emerald Bay near the Pacific Coast Highway. The fire has charred 145 acres and is about 5% contained, Orange County Fire Authority officials said.

Thick clouds of smoke blanketed the entire beach community as hundreds of Emerald Bay and Irvine Cove residents fled their homes in the darkness. The city also issued an evacuation warning for North Laguna, including all residents north of Broadway, urging them to remain vigilant.

The fire occurs during a heat wave in the region. Temperatures are expected to hit 80 degrees on Thursday. The National Weather Service also issued a wind advisory, warning of northeasterly winds between 15 and 20 mph with gusts up to 30 mph.

Laguna Beach Mayor Sue Kempf said many longtime residents still have vivid memories of a massive wildfire that scorched the town in 1993, destroying more than 300 homes.

The 1993 fire occurred in October, which is considered part of California’s fire season. This fire broke out at a time that is traditionally the wettest month of the year in the region.

“People have been here a long time and they are very sensitive. They are very worried,” she said. “I think we have a good team working on that. I’m sure we’ll get through this. »

Firefighters were battling the blaze both on the ground and in the air, with a focus on protecting Emerald Bay homes, many of which are multi-million dollar properties, in the path of the blaze. Brush has not burned in the area since 1993.

About three miles north of the Crystal Cove Beach Cottages fire, Eulynn Gargano woke up early to watch the sunrise over the beach when she noticed the sky was looking a little strange.

“Oh look, the clouds are coming,” she told her partner, John Cullen, who was vacationing with her.

She thought it was the marine layer coming in, but it looked a little too dense. Cullen, who lives in New York, stepped out to capture the sunrise with his camera. Then they saw smoke and learned there was a fire nearby.

Gargano, who splits her time between New York and Huntington Beach, said she wasn’t too worried. Cullen snapped photos of the smoky pink sky with his camera perched atop a tripod, facing south.

Helicopters hovered above the crashing waves. High winds whipped palm trees a few feet away, but the couple said they would not evacuate unless it becomes mandatory. They were lucky because Crystal Cove was just outside the evacuation zone, they said.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy told an early morning news conference that the Santa Ana winds that had swept through the area overnight were beginning to weaken. He was sure the firefighters had the blaze under control.

“The fire is not spreading quickly at the moment,” he added.

The fire burned north of Emerald Bay and does not threaten any other communities, Fennessy said. He urged residents to remain vigilant and heed all evacuation warnings.

No houses were damaged or destroyed. Authorities have not determined what caused the fire. It is unclear when residents will be able to return home.

Temperatures had already reached 70 degrees by mid-morning in Laguna Beach and vegetation in the hills was dry, officials said. Four Cal Fire air tankers, five helicopters and more than 75 engines were battling the blaze Thursday morning.

“We no longer have a fire season. We have a fire year,” Fennessy said. “It is February 10. It’s supposed to be the middle of winter and we’re expecting 80-90 degree weather. Even though the hillsides are green, low humidity and wind are enough to cause fires. If that’s any sign of what’s to come for the remainder of winter and spring, we’re in for a long year.

Most of the smoke had cleared at Crystal Cove State Beach by 8:30 a.m. A toddler danced near the shore. A woman was sipping her coffee while watching the crashing waves. An old man was jogging nearby.

Cole Daroff and his 3-year-old daughter, Eloise, sculpted shapes in the sand with sticks. Daroff’s wife, Margaret Burris, laid a pair of cinnamon rolls on their beach blanket.

The only clue that something was wrong were the helicopters in the sky. But that didn’t seem to bother them.

“We live in Los Angeles,” Burris said. “There are helicopters over our house all the time.”

Councilman George Weiss stood in a vacant lot north of Laguna Beach just before 6 a.m., consulting with firefighters about their plan of attack. He could hear evacuation messages broadcast over loudspeakers to nearby residents, urging them to leave their homes.

“The fire is lodged in the hills of Emerald Bay and is moving downhill toward Irvine Cove,” he said. “It’s breezy right now, but if the wind turns, it looks like we’re in trouble.”

The fire forced the closure of all schools in the city, the Laguna Beach Unified School District said.

“The safety of our students is LBUSD’s number one priority, and we will provide updates as we get more information,” the district wrote in a statement. “Please stay safe.”

A town down the road in Irvine, authorities have opened the Los Olivos Community Center to all evacuees affected by the fire. An evacuation center is also open in the Laguna Beach community and at the Susi Q center in Laguna Beach.

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