Unusual winter fires in Southern California burn several homes, spur evacuations

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LOS ANGELES – A pair of unusual winter wildfires in Southern California on Thursday burned several homes, spurred evacuations and closed a portion of the iconic Pacific Coast Highway.

The two fires, one near Los Angeles and the other farther south near Laguna Beach, spread amid fierce winds, along with a continued drought and weather conditions that felt more like summer than winter, furthering fears that fire has become a year-round threat in the state.

A small blaze in Whittier, just east of Los Angeles, erupted Thursday around 2:30 p.m. downhill from a suburb of large homes. The fire destroyed two homes and damaged a third before an evacuation order could even be issued, according to fire officials and local news reports.

"It happened very quickly," Sean Ferguson, a fire inspector with the Los Angeles Fire Department, told the local CBS affiliate. "It's an unfortunate example of just how quickly that these fires can race uphill, especially when they're being fueled by wind."

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Ferguson said winds were beating behind the fire, forcing it uphill and into homes. Houses were already impacted by the time fire crews got there, he added, but it appeared officials were able to prevent further damage.

Footage taken from helicopters showed flames burning through the second story of a large home bordering trees and other brush. Another home next door was blanketed in a thick fog of smoke.

The fire had stopped growing at four acres by 4:30 p.m. and was 20% contained, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Earlier in the day, a brush fire about 30 miles south in Orange County prompted evacuations for parts of the Laguna Beach area and temporarily closed a section of the Pacific Coast Highway.

The Orange County Fire Authority said despite the scare, it appeared the blaze was under control by the afternoon.

Brian Fennessy, fire chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, noted the unusualness of winter fires, adding that the hillsides were green. But low humidity and high winds still were able to fan the flames as Southern California is experiencing a winter heat wave. Witheringly low humidity levels are also sapping moisture from vegetation.

Firefighters watch as a helicopter drops water on a wildfire Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Laguna Beach, Calif.  A wildfire fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds erupted in hills on the Southern California coast early Thursday but firefighters kept flames from damaging homes and after several hours officials were optimistic the blaze could be stopped.
Firefighters watch as a helicopter drops water on a wildfire Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Laguna Beach, Calif. A wildfire fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds erupted in hills on the Southern California coast early Thursday but firefighters kept flames from damaging homes and after several hours officials were optimistic the blaze could be stopped.

Throughout the morning, helicopters dropped water, air tankers dropped fire-reducing retardant and fire engines remained stationed in front of homes in the area.

Irvine Cove and Emerald Bay were both ordered to evacuate and a warning was issued for North Laguna, the city of Laguna Beach said in a statement. Evacuees were told to head south as a stretch of the highway, also known as State Route 1, was closed.

Laguna Beach has a population of around 23,000 but sees about 6 million tourists a year, according to the city website.

By the afternoon, the road was reopened and those asked to evacuate were told they could return home. By 6 p.m., the fire was 20% contained at 145 acres burned, the Orange County Fire Authority said. Fire crews are working through the night.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Fennessy said. The blaze appeared to run adjacent to areas with homes, though none were damaged by the fire.

A high wind warning and heat advisory were in effect in the area Thursday, and nearly 50-mph gusts were recorded in the Laguna Beach, according to the National Weather Service.

"We no longer have a fire season. We have a fire year," he said.

Other parts of the Pacific Coast Highway were shut down in January and hundreds of residents were evacuated as wildfires raged near Big Sur.

The two-lane highway hugs the California coast for hundreds of miles. In its most famous stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the roadway is carved into steep terrain around the rugged Big Sur coast.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Laguna Beach, LA fires burn homes, prompt evacuations, close PCH