A firefighter keeps a lookout for spot fires on a hillside during the Silverado fire in Lake Forest, California. Picture: BLOOMBERG/PATRICK T FALLON
A firefighter keeps a lookout for spot fires on a hillside during the Silverado fire in Lake Forest, California. Picture: BLOOMBERG/PATRICK T FALLON

Los Angeles — Wind-driven walls of flame spurred mass evacuations in southern California and left two firefighters seriously injured on Monday, as hundreds of thousands of residents endured a second day of power shutoffs meant to counter heightened fire risks from dry and gusty weather.

The latest threats came amid what meteorologists called the strongest onslaught of extreme winds — and lowest humidity levels — yet documented during an already epic California wildfire season ranked as the worst on record in terms of acreage burnt.

Fires have scorched more than 16,500km², equivalent to the land mass of the state of Hawaii, since the start of the year, with thousands of homes destroyed and 31 lives lost.

Red-flag warnings for incendiary weather conditions remained in place across much of California due to winds gusting in excess 130km/h, according to the California department of forestry and fire protection.

Illustrating the hazards posed by California’s latest bout of desert-born winds, a blaze dubbed the Silverado fire erupted on Monday and spread across 2,913ha of Orange County, fire authority spokesperson Thanh Nguyen said.

About 90,800 residents were ordered to evacuate their homes in the city of Irvine as the fire raged largely unchecked through drought-parched brush in the canyons and foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains south of Los Angeles, officials said.

No property losses were immediately reported. But two firefighters among 500 personnel battling the flames with bulldozers and hand tools were admitted to hospital with severe burns, authorities said.

A second Orange County blaze, the Blueridge fire, later broke out near Yorba Linda and has charred 485ha, Nguyen said. An estimated 1,170 homes were under evacuation orders from that blaze, the county fire authority said.

Southern California Edison reported shutting off electricity to 21,000 homes and businesses as a precautionary measure in the face of elevated fire risks posed by dangerous winds.

Further away, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company said it had cut off power to more than 350,000 of its customers for the same reason.

Wind-damaged electrical lines have been implicated in causing dozens of devastating California wildfires in recent years, and utilities have resorted to such “public safety power shutoffs” to reduce the risk.

Wind gusts were clocked at up to 140km/h in Sonoma County wine country north of San Francisco Bay, and were steadily blowing at more than 80km/h elsewhere through the region.

“It’s the strongest wind event, and the lowest humidity event, for this fire season,” National Weather Service forecaster Jim Mathews said.

The latest outbreak of fires cap a summer of record California wildfire activity stoked by frequent and prolonged bouts of extreme heat, drought, wind and dry lightning storms that scientists point to as a consequence of climate change.

Further east in drought-stricken Colorado, an Arctic storm sweeping the Rockies over the weekend dumped up to 40cm of snow on the two largest wildfires in that state’s history.

“The snow has improved our chances of getting them contained, but we’re still a way off,” said Larry Helmerick, spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Area co-ordination Centre.

The two blazes combined have so far blackened well over a 100,000ha.



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