Fast-spreading wildfires have forced evacuation orders for more than 100,000 people and seriously injured two firefighters in Southern California as powerful winds across the state prompted a power outage to hundreds of thousands of residents.
Some 60,000 people fled their homes near Los Angeles on Monday as the wildfire raged across more than 3,000 hectares (7,200 acres), blocking key roads in Orange County.
The so-called Silverado Fire broke out early in the morning in the foothills of Irvine, 60 kilometres (about 37 miles) southeast of Los Angeles, and quickly spread unchecked, fueled by dry conditions and erratic winds that prevented firefighting aircraft from flying.
“It’s nuts – even inside the car, my eyes, my nose and my throat stung,” said Frederic Tournadre, a French man whose company in Irvine sent all its employees home.
The inferno nearly quadrupled in size by afternoon, jumping a highway and covering the area with a huge plume of smoke and ash.
The latest threats came amid what meteorologists called the strongest onslaught of extreme winds – and lowest humidity levels – documented yet in a California wildfire season ranked as the worst on record in terms of acreage burned.
Fires have scorched more than 16,500sq km (6,400 square miles) – an area equivalent to the landmass of the state of Hawaii – since the start of the year, with thousands of homes destroyed and 31 lives lost.
In a report to the state Public Utilities Commission, utility company Southern California Edison said it was investigating whether its electrical equipment caused the blaze. The brief report said it appeared that a “lashing wire” that tied a telecommunications line to a support cable may have struck a 12,000-volt conducting line above it, and an investigation was under way.
SCE 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.
Red-flag warnings for incendiary weather conditions remained in place across much of California due to winds gusting in excess of 129km/h (80mph), according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
An estimated 1,170 homes were under evacuation orders from the Blueridge fire, a second Orange County blaze that broke near Yorba Linda [Ringo Chiu/Reuters]
Some 90,800 residents were ordered to evacuate their homes in and around 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.
Two firefighters among some 500 personnel battling the flames with bulldozers and hand tools were hospitalized with severe burns, authorities said.
No property losses were immediately reported.
A second Orange County blaze, the Blueridge fire, later broke out near Yorba Linda and has charred roughly 485 hectares (1,200 acres), Nguyen said. Local television news footage showed at least one home gutted by flames.
An estimated 1,170 homes were under evacuation orders from that blaze, the county fire authority said on Twitter late on Monday.