Thousands of Californians were allowed to return home on Wednesday as calm winds helped firefighters fend off two windfires that led to large-scale evacuations.
Nearly 100,000 people were ordered to evacuate on Monday after wildfires broke out in the tree-lined hills above cities in Southern California’s Orange County, amid strong winds and extremely dry weather conditions.
On Wednesday, evacuation orders were lifted for all residents of Irvine, 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Los Angeles, and which has seen more than a quarter of its 280,000 residents evacuate from their homes. Evacuation orders have also been lifted due to the nearby Blue Ridge fire, as thousands of people in the Europa Linda and neighboring communities have been ordered to flee.
Firefighters made progress as the wind subsided and the flame spread slowed. The Silverado fire in the Irvine area had been contained 32% by Wednesday evening and the Blue Ridge fire in the North had been trapped by 23% after it had not been physically contained for a day.
“With the right weather, firefighting teams will find opportunities to create more lines of control,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in a statement.
The Silverado fire burned 21 square miles (54 square kilometers). Two of the firefighters remained in the hospital after suffering second- and third-degree burns across large areas of their bodies, and no homes were lost, said Brian Vincci, head of the Orange County Fire Department.
The Blue Ridge fire, over an area of 22.4 square miles (58 square kilometers), destroyed one building and damaged seven.
Vinici said two firefighters who had struggled with the Silverado fire were taken to hospital with second and third degree burns.
Scientists said climate change has made California drier, which means trees and other plants are more combustible. October and November are the worst months for the fires, but this year has already resulted in 8,600 fires in the state, a record 6,400 square miles (16,600 square kilometers) and nearly 9,200 homes, businesses and other buildings destroyed. There were 32 deaths.
The strong winds subsided on Tuesday night, and calmer breezes were expected for the rest of the week, but the warm, dry weather that leads to dangerous forest fires was expected to continue in November, without rain.
State fire officials said the cause of the Silverado fire was under investigation.
Southern California’s Edison Corporation has informed state officials that it is investigating whether its equipment caused the fire. According to Edison’s report to utility regulators, a “tie wire” connecting a communications line to a backing cable may be in contact with a separate, 12,000 volt conductor line above it.
In the face of intense wildfire conditions this week including hurricane-level winds, Northern California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation has preemptively cut power to nearly a million people and averted major wildfires during their outages.
Edison defended its decision not to impose a blackout in that particular region. Spokesman Chris Appel said wind speeds in the mountains over Irvine on Monday morning did not initially reach the blackout threshold, although it did so later in the morning and some electrical circuits were cut.
By late Wednesday, power was restored to Edison customers who had suffered a planned outage, according to the facility. In Northern California, electricity has been restored to nearly all residents, according to PG&E.
Authorities in northern California said on Wednesday that a man injured last month in a fire in Butte County died of his wounds.
Wayne Nying, 54, from Berry Creek, had burns in the fire, but managed to drive from his home and find a firefighter who took him to hospital. The Butte County Police Department said in a statement on Wednesday that Ning died on October 21 at the University of California Medical Center in Davis, bringing the total number of people killed in that fire to 16.