Firefighters are working to knock down a brush fire that grew to at least 150 acres above Emerald Bay by Thursday afternoon.
Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessey told reporters no structures have been damaged by the Emerald Fire, which was reportedly 10% contained by Thursday afternoon. Unseasonably high temperatures and relatively low humidity combined with night-time winds contributed heavily to the fire’s spread.
“We’re in for a good couple of days of tough weather,” Fennessey said.
He urged Laguna Beach residents to heed evacuation orders and warnings.
“I’ve been doing this for 44 years and I can’t tell you how many people tell me, ‘I saw the fire but I had no idea how fast it could get to me,'” Fennessey said.
The Laguna Beach Police Department issued an immediate evacuation order for Irvine Cove and North and South Emerald Bay.
The Laguna Beach Police Department issued an evacuation order for Irvine Cove and North and South Emerald Bay. That order was lifted at 3 p.m. An evacuation warning remained in place for all Laguna Beach residents north of Broadway Street until further notice.
A city spokesperson said 1,876 structures had been under mandatory evacuation and 698 structures were placed under a warning of potential evacuations.
The Laguna Beach Unified School District has closed all of its school sites and a school board meeting scheduled for Thursday night was postponed due to the active fire, district officials said.
All northbound traffic on Coast Highway was closed at Ledroit Street and southbound traffic was closed at El Morro by 5:14 a.m. The highway reopened to traffic in both directions by 11:15 a.m.
The Orange County Fire Authority, Newport Beach Fire Department, Fullerton Fire Department, Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Orange City Fire Department, Caltrans, and inmate fire crews supervised by CalFire are among the agencies assisting Laguna Beach with emergency response.
Seventy-five fire engines, three water-dropping helicopters, four hand crews, five water-dropping helicopters, four Calfire Air tankers, and two bulldozers were fighting the blaze by mid-morning.
Mayor Sue Kempf said the Susi Q Senior and Community Center is accepting community members who need shelter. She’s pleased with how residents have heeded officials’ evacuation orders.
“The best thing we can do is communicate and the best thing they can do is be prepared if they are in peril,” Kempf said. “We have a good team working on this and I’m confident we’ll get through this.”
Jeanne Butcher, a 45-year resident of Emerald Bay, woke up at about 4:15 a.m. to her husband Greg Butcher saying a fire was burning the hillsides near their home. They were prepared to evacuate with a box of essential files and framed family photos.
The latest blaze brought on the Butchers’ memories of living through the 1993 Laguna Fire that burned many houses across the street.
“I feel appreciative of the firefighters,” Jeanne Butcher said. “We’ve really been immersed in a lot of tragedies with the fires near our home in Tahoe. It surrounded us.”
An Emerald Bay Association security guard knocked on the front door of the home where Eva Kramer, 92, has lived for 50 years. Fortunately, her daughter Kari Kajitani happened to be staying with her and learned the fire was burning on a nearby hillside. Kajitani went to the side of the house where she found a wall of fire.
She took her mom and her two dogs to Emerald Bay Beach to wait out the firestorm. Kramer grabbed her purse and a vintage Norwegian costume her mother sewed for her.
“I’d like to thank all the firefighters for saving my home,” Kramer said.
The Emerald Fire is the second significant fire to impact Laguna Beach in the last year. On June 16, 2021, a brush fire torched about 11 acres in open space off State Route 73 west of Laguna Canyon Road.
Emerald Bay wildlife fuel modification zones made a huge difference in providing firefighters with enough room to safely work in defending homes, Fennessey said. His message to other communities was blunt, “Get your defensible space done.”
This story is developing and will be updated as necessary.