With all they’ve been through in the last few weeks -- a massive wildfire, the threat of mudslides, a small earthquake -- the residents of Yorba Linda and other north Orange County cities could be forgiven Tuesday if they thought the forces of nature were bearing down on them again.
But the coffee-colored air that hung over the area wasn’t another brush fire, just the leftover ash and grit stirred up by strong Santa Ana winds.
The Orange County Fire Authority received about 40 calls from worried residents who thought they were seeing smoke from a blaze, said Greg McKeown, an Orange County Fire Authority captain. Officials reassured residents that they were seeing only debris in the air from last month’s Freeway Complex fire, which destroyed 118 homes in Yorba Linda and 72 in nearby cities.
Santa Ana winds of up to 50 mph began howling in the morning, shaking windows and doors and causing trees to sway, residents said.
When Dick Barrow looked out of his garage, he saw ash and dirt swirling in the air and a layer of dark brown dust so thick he could barely see the top of the hills just half a mile away.
“Good thing we had the rain earlier,” he said, “or it’d probably look much worse out there.”
He went to look at his backyard pool. “It’s all black again, and I just got it cleaned up after the fires,” said Barrow, 72, who has lived in Yorba Linda for nearly 40 years.
Colleen Dinunzio, who lives nearby, woke to see the sky darkening outside and to find that soot had blown into one of her bedrooms through a window left open a crack.
“It’s uncomfortable outside,” she said. “You can see the stuff blowing. You’re stepping on black ashes and soot, and you know it’s blowing through your hair.”
Every day, she drives by the homes in her neighborhood that were burned and damaged. “All the devastation, it’s discouraging. Now, I’m worried about mudslides, and there was an earthquake,” she said, “I keep thinking, what else?”
By mid-morning, some residents said they were beginning to see blue skies again.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a warning that the strong winds in conjunction with the debris from the recent fires could cause unhealthful air quality for small children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems or heart disease.
“If you see a lot of dust, you know you’re being impacted,” said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the district. He said people should avoid exercising vigorously outside and even inside their homes, because microscopic particles from the debris could infiltrate buildings.