Calmer California winds help firefighters beat back 2 blazes

Source: By Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Olga R. Rodriguez, Associated Press • Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2020

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Calmer weather on Wednesday allowed firefighters to beat back twin blazes that drove nearly 100,000 Southern California residents from their homes amid fierce winds and extremely dry conditions.

Authorities lifted some evacuation orders Tuesday as winds began subsiding and containment was increased for the massive wildfires in brushy hills above cities in Orange County. More residents were expected to receive permission to return to their homes on Wednesday.

“With favorable weather, fire crews will find opportunities to establish more control lines,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in a statement.

The Silverado Fire broke out in gusty weather around dawn Monday near Irvine, a city of 280,000 about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Los Angeles.

That blaze and the Blue Ridge Fire just to the north, which broke out several hours later near the city of Yorba Linda, sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing densely populated neighborhoods. At least 10 homes were damaged by flames.

Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable. October and November are traditionally the worst months for fires, but already this year 8,600 wildfires in the state have scorched a record 6,400 square miles (16,600 square kilometers) and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other buildings. There have been 31 deaths.

Two firefighters who battled the Silverado Fire remained hospitalized in critical condition Tuesday after suffering second- and third-degree burns over large portions of their bodies, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessey said. Three other firefighters suffered less serious injuries battling the blazes.

At one point, the winds were so fierce that gusts blew over tractor-trailers and grounded firefighting aircraft. They subsided Tuesday night and calmer winds were predicted for the rest of the week, the National Weather Service said.

But continued warm and dry weather that make for potentially dangerous wildfire conditions were forecast into November, with no rain.

The Southern California Edison utility reported to state officials that it was investigating whether its equipment might have sparked the Silverado Fire.

According to Edison’s report to utility regulators, a “lashing wire” that ties a telecommunications line to a supporting cable may have come into contact with a separate 12,000-volt conductor line above it.

Facing extreme wildfire conditions this week that included hurricane-level winds, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in Northern California preventatively cut power to nearly 1 million people.

Meanwhile Edison initially pulled the plug on just 30 customers to prevent power lines and other electrical equipment from sparking blazes. PG&E avoided major wildfires during its outage.

Edison defended its decision not to institute a blackout. Spokesman Chris Abel said wind speeds in the mountains above the city of Irvine on Monday morning did not initially reach the threshold to cut power, though they did later in the morning and some electric circuits were cut.

“It’s not something that we take lightly,” Abel said of the decision to shut off electricity. “We know that not having power is a tremendous burden on our customers.”

As of Tuesday night, only about 2,000 of Edison’s 5 million customers were without power, according to an outage website.

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Associated Press reporters Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed.