Edison reports ‘circuit activity’ at time of Coastal fire

Authorities on Thursday were trying to determine the cause of a brush fire that burned at least 20 homes in Laguna Niguel, fueled by winds and dry conditions caused by California’s intense drought.

The probe is still in its early stages, but Southern California Edison issued an initial report to state regulations saying that “our information reflects circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time of the fire.”

No other details were provided.

“Our thoughts are with the community members whose homes have been damaged and those who were evacuated because of the Coastal fire, and we’re coordinating with fire agencies as needed to ensure firefighter safety,” said David Song, a spokesman for the utility.

Song said Edison’s report — which is required for certain types of events — is intended to put the California Public Utilities Commission “on notice of an incident, so that it can conduct its own investigation.”

“Our top priority is the safety of customers, employees and communities, which is why we continue to enhance our wildfire mitigation efforts through grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices,” he added.

Some of California’s most destructive fires have been caused by power lines damaged by winds, including the Paradise inferno and the massive 2017 blazes in wine country. Edison faced more than half a billion dollars in fines from the California Public Utilities Commission last year related to several big fires, including the Thomas and the Woolsey.

The Coastal fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in a coastal canyon near the Pacific Ocean in an upscale section of south Orange County. Hundreds of residents fled as the flames swept into a gated community of multimillion-dollar homes overlooking the ocean.

The fire remained at about 200 acres Thursday morning, and an estimated 900 homes have been evacuated, officials said. Information about containment was not immediately available.

Smoke from the blaze still blanketed the city, casting a gray cloud over the hilltop homes threatened by fire.

“I know it’s been a long night for the people of Laguna Niguel,” said County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett. “My thoughts and prayers go out to all the residents who have been affected by this terrible fire.”

One firefighter was injured Wednesday and taken to a hospital for evaluation, according to TJ McGovern, assistant chief of field operations for the Orange County Fire Authority.

Sara Nuss-Galles watched the fire grow from her ridgetop home on Via Estoril in Laguna Niguel for more than an hour Wednesday afternoon before deciding it was time to leave. Smoke choked the hillsides as ash fell across the city.

“My clothes smell from the hour I spent in the house,” she said. “It’s just plumes of smoke. It’s very scary.”

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said at least 20 homes had been destroyed.

California has secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will allow local agencies to seek reimbursement for some of the costs associated with battling the blaze, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Thursday.

“Local communities have been working around the clock to fight this fire and protect the citizens who live in the area,” Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Seal Beach) wrote in an earlier letter to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. “Approving this request will help local authorities with the vital cost associated with fighting these fires, including the costs for emergency equipment, supplies, field camps and safety items.”

The destruction underscores the year-round danger of fires in Southern California, even in cool conditions.

“It’s sad to say that we’re getting kind of used to this,” Fennessy said. “The winds we experienced today are normal winds. … We’re seeing spread in ways we haven’t before. Fire is spreading very quickly into this very dry vegetation and taking off.”

Unlike many wildfires in the region, the Coastal fire was fanned not by Santa Ana winds from the desert but by strong tastes coming from the Pacific Ocean.

Gusts reached 30 mph in parts of Orange County on Wednesday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brandt Maxwell. The winds drove the flames across drought-patched hillsides.

Persistent drought conditions in California and across the western United States have left vegetation so dry that it doesn’t take much for the fuels to ignite, Fennessy said.

Vegetation across the county had already seen little rainfall. Between October and April, Southern California’s rainy season, less than 7 inches of rain fell at nearby John Wayne Airport, nearly 40% less than normal levels, Maxwell said.

And the previous year, the area was even drier, with less than 4 ½ inches.

“I guess it’s just disheartening that we’re already seeing a fire that’s this aggressive and it’s only May. Usually this is something that we see later on in the summer and especially in fall,” Maxwell added.

Authorities received the first 911 calls reporting a roughly 50-by-50-foot fire near a water treatment plant, Fennessy said.

Crews launched an immediate attack, but the fire quickly made its way upslope into the canyon, he said. Steep terrain made it difficult to get water hoses and hand crews into the area.

Efforts to contain the blaze were further complicated because the area is covered by thick vegetation that Fennessy said probably hasn’t burned in decades.