Tens of thousands evacuated as crews battle California wildfires

Fierce winds are forecast, which could spread the two fires even further.

California wildfires
California wildfires

Crews are attempting to beat back two wildfires in Southern California which have kept tens of thousands of people out of their homes as expected high winds threaten to spread the flames.

Fierce winds that drove twin fires through brushy hills near cities in Orange County a day earlier were expected to pick back up, although not to the earlier extremes, according to the US National Weather Service.

Power firm Southern California Edison said it is investigating whether its equipment might have sparked the Silverado Fire near the city of Irvine.

With utility equipment blamed for several destructive fires in recent years, Edison was among the utilities in California that deliberately cut power to customers to prevent equipment from being knocked down or hit with debris in the winds and sparking wildfires.

Irvine residents had to evacuate after a fire broke out early on Monday. Later, a few miles away, the Blue Ridge Fire sent people fleeing from the Yorba Linda area.

California Wildfires
Firefighter Raymond Vasquez battles the Silverado Fire in Irvine (Jae C Hong/AP)

More than 90,000 people are under evacuation orders.

One home was damaged and firefighters protected hundreds more properties as winds pushed flames down ridges toward neighbourhoods. There was little containment of the fires.

Santa Ana winds are forecast to keep blowing over much of Southern California, with some of the strongest gusts howling through Orange County, where the major blazes are situated.

The winds are expected to be lighter than a day earlier and die down by night-time.

The gusts were so strong on Monday that they toppled several trucks on major roads and forced firefighters to ground their aircraft.

California Wildfires
A helicopter drops retardant on the Silverado wildfire (Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register/AP)

Two firefighters aged 26 and 31 were critically injured while battling the larger blaze near Irvine, according to the county’s fire authority. They each suffered second- and third-degree burns over large portions of their bodies.

Southern California Edison cut power to about 38,000 homes and businesses, although it restored some power by Monday night.

In Northern California, easing winds allowed Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to begin restoring power after the largest of five safety shut-offs this year.

At its peak, PG&E cut power to about 345,000 customers – an estimated one million people – in 34 counties. America’s largest utility firm said it has restored power to more than 156,000 customers.

Electricity is expected to come back at the remaining homes and buildings by Tuesday night after crews carry out inspections, make repairs and ensure equipment is safe.

California Wildfires
A huge plume of smoke generated by the Silverado Fire rises behind homes in Irvine (Jae C Hong/AP)

A dozen reports of damage have been received, PG&E said.

Nearly two dozen wildfires were reported in Northern California on Sunday night and Monday but all were rapidly contained without serious damage.

The threat, however, was far from over in many parts of PG&E’s vast service area.

A red-flag warning of extreme fire danger was in place Tuesday in the Santa Cruz Mountains near the San Francisco Bay Area and some coastal and valley areas, with warnings extending into Tuesday evening for some higher elevations in the Bay Area.

Bone-dry humidity could dry out vegetation, which can contribute to “catastrophic” fires, PG&E meteorology chief Scott Strenfel said.

£|The conditions are very, very unsafe,” said Mark Quinlan, the utility’s incident commander.

However, once the winds ease, the weather should remain calm through the weekend.

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 and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other buildings. There have been 31 deaths.

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