Chilling new images at dawn Thursday show the heartbreaking damage of the massive fire in Southern California — where multimillion-dollar homes have been reduced to charred skeletons and piles of smoldering ash.
The fast-moving brush fire in Laguna Niguel was first reported around 2:45 p.m. Wednesday and had engulfed about 200 acres by 6 p.m. — forcing evacuations as it tore through the area, authorities said.
The so-called Coastal Fire broke out between Laguna Niguel and Laguna Beach near a water treatment plant before strong winds caused it to spread rapidly, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for residents living on Coronado Pointe Drive, Vista Court and Via Las Rosas, according to KABC.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department estimated that there are about 100 homes across those areas.
Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, said late Wednesday that about 20 homes had been destroyed in the conflagration.
“You’ve got to remember that this fire was wind-driven,” Fennessy told reporters.
“We have embers cast very deep down into those canyons, many of them up into those palm trees. We had embers in our attic spaces, through vents,” he said.
“The focus is to get into these homes and to really take a look into those attics, to get down in the vegetation, to really make sure we’re not leaving any hot embers in place,” the chief added.
On Thursday morning, harrowing images emerged showing mansions reduced to rubble — with smoke still pouring from the scene.
There have been no immediate reports of injuries as the flames swallowed entire homes.
Laguna Beach resident Jennifer McCoy told CNN she first noticed smoke coming from the neighboring Laguna Niguel around 4:15 p.m.
“I walked down to the shopping center below and the smoke grew maybe two to three times what it was before,” she said about how the flames spread after two hours.
Firefighters resorted to using water from a pond at the El Niguel Country Club in Laguna Niguel to try to bring the blaze under control, CNN reported.
The combination of the gusty winds and the dry conditions exacerbated the fire, Fennessy said during a press conference.
“The fuel beds in this county, throughout Southern California, throughout the West, are so dry that a fire like this is going to be more commonplace,” he said. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, a fire like this would’ve likely been stopped very small.”
Allan Aguilera, another Laguna Niguel resident, said he and his family decided to evacuate when they saw the flames spreading rapidly from a nearby lookout point.
“When we reached the top, we saw the full scale of how big the fire was and witness how quickly it was spreading,” he told CNN. “There were tons of people in the area doing the same, watching the fire before the winds changed and began pushing the flames closer and closer. At that point, we decided to leave and go prepare for potential evacuation.
“The situation was incredibly tense but we kept our cool, gathered our most valuable belongings … and made an early evacuation to avoid any potential bottlenecking if the worst-case scenario were to play out,” Aguilera added.
Meteorologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expect a “prolonged, persistent drought in the West where below-average precipitation is most likely,” the agency said in March.