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145-acre brush fire prompts evacuations in north Laguna Beach

The crest of the Emerald fire burns to the top of a hillside in an unincorporated area behind Emerald Bay
The crest of the Emerald fire burns to the top of a hillside in an unincorporated area behind Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach on Thursday morning.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Residents awoke to the sound of the emergency outdoor warning system and the sight of a brush fire in north Laguna Beach on Thursday morning, one that resulted in evacuation orders for the communities of Emerald Bay and Irvine Cove.

All north Laguna residents, those who live north of Broadway, were put under an evacuation warning at around 5:45 a.m. due to the Emerald fire, which was estimated to have reached 145 acres in size as of 5 p.m. The Orange County Fire Authority reported the fire to be 20% contained at that time.

Coast Highway had also been closed off to through traffic in both directions from Broadway to Newport Coast Drive. It has since been reopened.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy addresses the media about the Emerald fire
Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy addresses the media about the Emerald fire in an unincorporated area behind Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach on Thursday morning.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Laguna Beach Community and Susi Q Center at 380 3rd Street, as well as Irvine’s Los Olivos Community Center at 101 Alfonso Drive were being utilized as care and reception sites for evacuees.

A trip to the Susi Q Center at midday revealed that not a single person had dropped in to make use of the evacuation accommodations, signaling residents had a place to go following the early-morning notice.

“I think our response by our residents has been good,” Laguna Beach Mayor Sue Kempf said at a morning press conference at Main Beach. “Our residents are very attentive. We’re a very tight community here. We communicate well with each other, and we care about each other. People work together here. I have no doubt about that.”

Emergency authorities responded to the fire after it was first reported at approximately 4:10 a.m.

Agencies responding to the blaze included the Orange County Fire Authority, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles County Fire, Newport Beach Fire, Caltrans, and those of Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo.

The crest of the Emerald fire burns to the top of a hillside in an unincorporated area behind Emerald Bay
The crest of the Emerald Fire burns to the top of a hillside in an unincorporated area behind Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach on Thursday morning.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Fire Chief Brian Fennessy of the Orange County Fire Authority said the Emerald fire was the only active fire in Southern California Thursday morning.

“We do have a lot of resources that are arriving,” Fennessy said. “... We’re going to hold onto those resources. The wind is supposed to, as I’m told, lighten up a little bit this morning, but it can pick right up again, and so our biggest concern would be that fire moving north, jumping where we’ve got it held right now, and moving north towards Newport Beach.

“I’m satisfied with the number of resources that we have at scene, we have en route. At this time, I’m feeling pretty confident that we’ve got a pretty good handle on this fire, again, as long as the weather cooperates. Resources continue to come in. The aircraft are doing an amazing job. … This is the only fire right now in California, so we are resource rich.”

Many longtime residents still remember the 16,000-acre Laguna Beach wildfire of 1993.

“I live right by the high school,” resident Isabel Ingham said. “I was here during the 1993 fire, so I had to evacuate then. I lived in north Laguna, so it was scary. You learn by that what you need to hold together and all that kind of stuff.”

Ingham said her preparation consisted of packing some of her belongings into a car just in case she was subjected to an evacuation order.

Thursday’s fire put into motion some of the new implementations from Laguna Beach’s wildfire mitigation plan, including a recently added helicopter refilling station to aid with water drops on the fire, which had moved north of Emerald Bay as of midmorning. No structures had been reported lost to the blaze.

A Cal Fire helicopter dumps water over a burned hillside behind a home at Irvine Cove in Laguna Beach on Thursday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“We were definitely watching it,” north Laguna resident Erin King said. “At one point, we heard a loudspeaker down the street. We couldn’t really hear what it was saying, but our neighbors were kind of like, ‘What should we do?’

“Then this one guy was running down with his surfboard, and he was like, ‘Evacuate to the water,’ and we were like, ‘OK, well if he’s going to be surfing, it’s not that serious, probably.’ Very California moment.”

All evacuation orders in Laguna Beach were lifted as of 3 p.m., although evacuation warnings remained in effect for the impacted areas. City officials advised residents that the power may not have been turned back on for their homes prior to returning.

Laguna Beach police and fire personnel were expected to conduct overnight patrols for fire watch at Irvine Cove, while the Orange County Fire Authority would handle those duties for the unincorporated area of Emerald Bay, city officials announced Thursday afternoon. Closures remained in effect for adjacent state parks.

Laguna Beach Unified School District closed its four campuses and the district office, district spokesperson Shelley Spessard said. She added that the administration would visit school sites in the afternoon to assess the situation. Anneliese schools were also closed.

A heatwave has brought summer-like temperatures and windy conditions to Southern California over the last several days. A high of 88 degrees was expected in Laguna Beach on Thursday.

Newport Beach police officers direct traffic heading south along Pacific Coast Highway toward Laguna Beach Thursday morning.
Newport Beach police officers direct traffic heading south along Pacific Coast Highway toward Laguna Beach as firefighters contain a brush fire near Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach on Thursday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The origin of the fire is still under investigation.

“We no longer have a fire season,” Fennessy added. “We have a fire year. It’s Feb. 10. It’s supposed to be the middle of winter, and we’re anticipating 80-, 90-degree weather … Please heed the warning of your fire service. Now is the time to be taking care of your defensible space; and as a bigger reminder, if we ask or law enforcement ask … that you evacuate, please do so.”

H.B. firefighters extinguish small blaze

Huntington Beach firefighters extinguished a small brush fire near Ellis Avenue and Goldenwest Street Thursday afternoon.

Firefighters responded to the area at about 2:40 p.m. and put out a 15-by-20-foot patch of brush in “no time,” said Jennifer Carey, a city spokesperson. It’s not immediately known what started the fire.

Huntington Beach police helped manage traffic and took a report.

Staff writer Priscella Vega contributed to this report.

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Updates

5:36 p.m. Feb. 10, 2022: This story has been updated with quotes from Laguna Beach Mayor Sue Kempf, residents, and additional information about the fire and the response to it.

12:29 p.m. Feb. 10, 2022: This story has been updated with quotes from Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy.


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