Stripped of air support, Orange County firefighters held their ground Monday against a suspected arson blaze that devoured brush-covered hillsides and raced toward thousands of homes in two Lake Forest communities.
Forty-foot-tall flames and smoldering embers bore down on Foothill Ranch in south Orange County. Residents left their homes as firefighters waged a front-line battle to contain the 15,800-acre fire that has zig-zagged through the hillsides and canyons since Sunday.
Late Monday, the fire shifted and headed north toward Silverado Canyon, where 2,000 people faced evacuation. Officials said limited air support was available due to dangerously high winds and because some equipment had been loaned to firefighters in neighboring areas.
“We have two tough days ahead of us,” said Mark Kramer, operations chief for the Orange County Fire Authority. “This is a tough fire in a wilderness area.”
Authorities said the Santiago fire was set in three places next to the 241 toll road about 6 p.m. Sunday, and it grew quickly, fueled by dense vegetation and fierce Santa Ana winds. Several firefighters had minor injuries, two buildings were damaged and one destroyed, but no homes had burned by Monday evening.
The fire was 30% contained by Monday morning, but fire officials made little progress during the day, as winds gusted to more than 35 mph.
“This fire is not under control,” said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), after touring neighborhoods threatened by the fire. “We need [more aircraft] dropping water immediately.”
Nearly 500 firefighters, 94 engines and trucks, and two water-dropping helicopters tried unsuccessfully to beat back the fire on the last ridgeline separating the wilderness from Foothill Ranch, a community of more than 10,000. The fire also approached Portola Hills, a community of more than 6,000. Both are part of Lake Forest.
Breaks such as highways that usually slow a fire’s progress were ineffective, said Capt. Joe Brock of the fire authority.
“The 241 [toll road] didn’t even slow it down,” he said.
By late Monday, the fire crept down brush-thick Borrego Canyon, which bisects Foothill Ranch. Flames licked at the property lines of the hundreds of homes along the canyon, as residents packed and fled.
“We’ve been through this before,” said Karen Royer, loading her car. “I believe in God, and I know everything will be good.”
Minutes later, a plume of dark smoke billowed over a ridgeline.
“Can I revise that?” she asked. “Now I’m scared.”
As flames roared down the gully, as many as 50 spectators stood within 30 feet of the fire, taking photographs.
“I probably shouldn’t do this,” said Trisha Wuich, 32, as she snapped cellphone pictures of the blaze. “But it’s natural curiosity. I called my husband and said, ‘If I’m dead, it’s because of curiosity.’ ”
Just outside Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, residents of the Montecito Condominiums at Portola Hills packed their belongings and prepared to leave. Seeing news coverage of the firefighting efforts in Malibu, they questioned why there weren’t more helicopters dousing the nearby flames.
“They need air support to stop this,” said Lori Minchey, 47, who lives in the complex.
Local firefighters said they could have used the help of colleagues who were sent to Malibu on Sunday. Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion said Orange County sent 15 engines and 48 firefighters to help battle the Malibu fire. Some returned Monday.
“This is simply a matter of supply and demand,” Concepcion said.
He added that the lack of available air support prompted firefighters to resort to “old-school tactics” -- shovels, picks and manual labor.
More than a dozen firefighters escaped injuries after being forced to deploy fire-retardant survival tents along Santiago Canyon Road when they were overtaken by the flames. An offshoot of the Santiago fire roared up a hillside near Silverado Canyon, and after the firefighters realized they couldn’t outrun it, they took cover as the blaze burned over them, authorities said.
The firefighters had only minor, if any, injuries, according to preliminary reports.
Four firefighters were injured in a separate incident.
Earlier, more than 1,000 inmates were evacuated from the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine and bused to jails in Orange and Santa Ana.
Hotels were flooded with phone calls from evacuees fleeing fires in San Diego and Orange counties. Some found rooms at the Holiday Inn Express in Dana Point.
“I’ve got families sitting in the lobby with their luggage and pets, waiting for rooms to become available” said manager Cindy Cano.
Times staff writers Jennifer Delson, David Haldane, Seema Mehta, David Reyes, H.G. Reza, Jason Song and Janet Wilson and editorial assistant Nardine Saad contributed to this report.