70,000 in Southern California to evacuate after blaze grows

A fast-moving wildfire forced evacuation orders for 70,000 people and seriously injured two firefighters in Southern California on Monday as powerful winds across the state prompted power to be cut to hundreds of thousands to prevent utility equipment from sparking new blazes.

The smoky fire exploded in size to over 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) within a few hours of breaking out around dawn in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. Strong gusts pushed flames along brushy ridges in Silverado Canyon and near houses in the sprawling city of Irvine, home to about 280,000 residents. There was no containment.

Two firefighters, one 26 and the other 31 years old, were critically injured while battling the blaze, according to the county’s Fire Authority, which didn’t provide details on how the injuries occurred. They each suffered second- and third-degree burns over large portions of their bodies and were intubated at a hospital, officials said.

California is extremely dry and fire danger is high as the state experiences winds that are gusting above 60 mph (97 kph) in places. Such winds can knock down power lines and send tree branches into wires, sparking fires.

It’s not clear what started the Orange County fire.

About 300,000 power customers — estimated at more than 1 million people — were in the dark as officials issued warnings for what could be the strongest winds for California this year.

North of San Francisco, a Mount St. Helena weather station recorded a hurricane-force gust of 89 mph (143 kph) late Sunday and sustained winds of 76 mph (122 kph).

Winds had calmed slightly by Monday morning but still topped 60 mph (97 kph), the National Weather Service said.

“While this is less than what we saw earlier, these winds are still strong and dry conditions prevail,” the agency said on Twitter.

Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable. October and November are traditionally the worst months for fires, but already this year 8,600 wildfires in the state have scorched a record 6,400 square miles (16,600 square kilometers) and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other buildings. There have been 31 deaths.

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Taxin reported from Orange County, California. Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.