Steve October 26, 2020
california-wildfire-leaves-two-firefighters-critically-injured,-forces-60,000-to-evacuate

A fast-moving, wind-whipped wildfire left two firefighters critically injured and forced about 60,000 residents of a Southern California suburb to evacuate on Monday, while huge swaths of the Golden State went without power in an effort to prevent more flames, officials said.

The firefighters, ages 26 and 31, were injured while battling the Silverado Fire, which had charred at least 4,000 acres in and around the community of Irvine, southeast of Los Angeles, the Orange County Fire Authority said.

The firefighters — two of about 500 trying to contain the out-of-control blaze — suffered second- and third-degree burns across 65 percent and 50 percent of their bodies, the authority said. Both were intubated.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said the incident was under investigation. He said that powerful winds had kept aircraft from dropping retardant and water on the blaze, making ground crew firefighters like the two who were injured critical to extinguishing the flames.

“This is a tough fire, where we’re experiencing very high winds, very low humidities,” he said. “Our firefighters are some of the bravest, if not the bravest in the world.”

Close to 60,000 people, living in 20,000 homes, are in range of the fire and were ordered to evacuate. Firefighters are dealing with steady winds of between 20 mph and 30 mph, gusting up to 65 mph, authorities said.

The University of California, Irvine, shut down all campus activities shortly before 11 a.m. PT.

“It was completely terrible,” UCI graduate student Vanessa Montellano, 23, told NBC News, describing the scene outside her apartment on Monday morning. “I was like wow, the skies were orange, the sun was bright red, the tree was swaying. It was almost not real.”

Thomas Anthony, a 32-year-old Irvine resident, was jarred awake by the sound of high winds in the middle of the night before waking up to the heavy smell of smoke.

The sights, sounds and smells of a major fire evacuation was a jarring experience for Anthony, his wife, their 1 1/2-year son and pet puppy.

“Man, it seemed like armageddon to be honest,” Anthony told NBC News after safely taking refuge with in-laws 30 miles away in Downey. “It could have been the end of the world if that’s what was really happening.”

Unseasonably warm, dry temperatures and high winds throughout California have led to planned power outages to curb the threat of electrical wires sparking wildfires.

Another blaze burning north of Irvine, the Blue Ridge fire, also forced evacuations on Monday. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office said that anyone north of a major freeway running beside Yorba Linda, a city of 67,000, should leave immediately.

According to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection incident report, the fire was 200 acres with no containment.

About 355,000 homes and business served by San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric were in the dark on Sunday and Monday, impacting about a million Californians, officials said.

Meanwhile closer to the Silverado Fire, nearly 20,000 homes and businesses were without power as a safety precaution by about noon on Monday, according to Southern California Edison. The company said it was considering shutting off electricity for another 105,000 customers.

This is a developing story, please refresh here for updates.

Image: David K. LiDavid K. Li

David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.

Tim Stelloh

Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News based in California.

Steve Strouss, Ali Gostanian and Allison Park

contributed.

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