(CNN) — At least 20 homes were left ablaze in the Laguna Hills area of California’s Orange County on Wednesday as a wildfire spread rapidly, spreading to homes that were destroyed or damaged, an official said.
The flames forced multiple emergency evacuations, as the forest fire spread to cover some 80 hectares on Wednesday night. The fire started on Wednesday afternoon and swept through the mansions located along the slopes of one of the most affluent neighborhoods in California.
The fire consumed entire houses and burned them from the inside in one neighborhood. Firefighters tried to save nearby houses on the same street by spraying them with water, footage from CNN affiliate KCBS/KCAL showed.
Laguna Beach resident Jennifer McCoy told CNN that when she spotted smoke billowing from Laguna Niguel, approximately 12 miles away, it was around 4:15 p.m. Less than two hours later, the clouds of smoke had cleared. further spread, McCoy said.
“I walked down to the mall below and the smoke grew maybe two or three times higher than before,” he said.
Fighting the fire in California
Meanwhile, firefighters were battling flames at several homes in the Aliso Woods Canyon area, photos from CNN affiliate KABC showed.
Firefighting crews turned to water from a pond at Laguna Niguel’s El Niguel Country Club to help fight the fire as thick brown and gray smoke blanketed the area.
No civilians or firefighters were reported injured, Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said during a news conference late Wednesday.
Fire crews began conducting damage assessments overnight and are watching for hot spots or embers in the air that could spark more devastating fires, Fennessy said.
The fire was fueled by wind gusts reaching up to 30 mph in the area, according to close observations from the National Weather Service. That’s on top of severe drought conditions across the region, according to the latest report from the US Drought Monitor.
Those dry conditions combined with coastal winds, which are not unusual for the region during this time of year, make the situation worse, Fennessy said.
“The beds of combustible material in this county, throughout Southern California, throughout the West, are so dry that a wildfire like this is going to be common,” he warned.
evacuations in progress
Evacuation orders are in effect for Coronado Pointe Drive, Vista Court and Via Las Rosa in the Pacific Island area of Laguna Niguel. A reception area for evacuees has also been set up at the Crown Valley Community Center, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release.
Laguna Niguel resident Allan Aguilera told CNN that he and his family decided to evacuate when they saw the extent of the flames from an overlook in the neighborhood.
“When we got to the top, we saw the full magnitude of how big the fire was and witnessed how fast it was spreading,” he said. “There were a lot of people in the area doing the same thing, watching the fire before the winds changed and started to push the flames closer and closer. At that point we decided to leave and go prepare for a possible evacuation,” he said.
“The situation was incredibly tense, but we stayed calm, gathered our most valuable belongings…and evacuated early to avoid any potential bottlenecks if the worst came to pass,” he added.
Devastating impact of climate change
The fire expanded to 80 hectares in just a few hours, despite an intense response from firefighters.
“We have over 60 different types of resources fighting the flames,” the Orange County Fire Authority said.
Despite the effort, the fire was still “escaping” rescuers, officials said, mainly driven by the effects of climate change in the region in recent years.
“We’re seeing a spread that we haven’t seen before. Five years ago, 10 years ago, a fire like that could have grown to a half acre, a hectare” before it was under control, Fennessy said. But now, “the fire spreads in this very dry vegetation and advances.”
California and the western United States in general are experiencing devastating drought conditions that have led to water restrictions in parts of the state.
Last summer, California experienced its most severe drought in its 126-year record. And for the next few months, the situation will not improve.
Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration anticipate a “long and persistent drought in the West, where below-average precipitation is more likely,” the agency wrote in March for its spring outlook.
Late last month, Southern California officials asked businesses and residents in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties to reduce outdoor watering to just one day a week.
Sharif Paget and Brandon Miller, both of CNN, contributed to this report.