- A wildfire has burned more than 20 homes in an affluent neighborhood in Orange County, California.
- It's early in the year for such an intense and fast-spreading blaze, experts say.
- The climate crisis is turning the entire year into wildfire season.
A wildfire has burned down dozens of homes, including multimillion-dollar mansions, in California's Orange County.
The blaze, called the Coastal Fire, began as a one-acre smolder in the hills overlooking Laguna Beach on Wednesday afternoon. At first, the fire was about the size of a football field, TJ McGovern, assistant chief of the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA), said in a press briefing Thursday morning.
But strong winds soon began pushing the flames uphill, where they quickly spread. Smoke filled the skies, tinging them a burnt orange. As night fell on Wednesday, the fire infiltrated a gated community called Coronado Pointe, where homes have ocean views and cost upward of $10 million, according to listings on the real-estate website Redfin.
As of Thursday morning, the fire covered 200 acres and OCFA had not reported success containing it. The Los Angeles Times reported that more than 20 homes have burned in the neighborhood, called Laguna Niguel, where the gated community is located. OCFA investigators were still assessing the damage on Thursday.
"When you take a look at the size of the homes, there's just so much combustible material that they burn fast, and then the wind starts and the flames can just leap from house to house," said Lisa Bartlett, an Orange County supervisor, according to the LA Times.
One firefighter has been injured and taken to the hospital, McGovern said during the briefing, but residents of the area were safely evacuated. About 900 homes were under evacuation orders as of Thursday morning.
The fire triggered explosions of live ammunition that was stored in some homes, according to CBS Sacramento.
The cause of the Coastal Fire is still undetermined, but the electric company Southern California Edison reported in a letter to the state utility commission that it had evidence of "circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time of the fire."
"I guess it's just disheartening that we're already seeing a fire that's this aggressive and it's only May," Brandt Maxwell, a National Weather Service meteorologist, told the LA Times.
"Usually this is something that we see later on in the summer and especially in fall," he added.
Wildfires have no season now
Many experts say there is no longer a wildfire season, meaning no time of year is wildfire-free now. That's because climate change has extended periods of heat and drought throughout the year. Such extreme conditions, which dry out vegetation, and leave behind acres of wildfire fuel, are becoming both more severe and more frequent as the planet's average temperature rises, according to decades of research.
"We've stopped talking about fire seasons," Issac Sanchez, Cal Fire's battalion chief of communications, told CNN. "The implication of that term is if we're in fire season there's a time of year when we're not in fire season. That's just not the case in California anymore."
This isn't even the first wildfire to strike affluent Orange County residents this year.
In February, a 150-acre blaze forced the county sheriff's deputies to rush through nearby neighborhoods awaking sleeping residents and telling them to flee in the early hours of the morning. OCFA did not report any injuries or destroyed structures in that incident.
"It's way too early" for a fire to spread so quickly in Southern California, Bill South, a National Weather Service meteorologist, told CNN. "This has the potential to be a very bad fire season," South added.
In some places, it already is. The second-largest wildfire in New Mexico history has been tearing through the northern part of the state for more than a month. Large blazes are also burning in Arizona and Texas.
Snow doesn't even offer reprieve in some places. In December, in the depths of winter, wildfires ripped through suburban Colorado and destroyed about 1,000 homes.