At least 20 large, mansion-style homes burn in Southern California wildfire

Laguna Niguel: Wind-driven blaze destroys at least 20 homes, scores forced to evacuate.  Blowing embers spread flames among coastal neighborhoods and luxury hotel.

By Eric Licas, Caitlin Antonios, and Erika I. Ritchie | Staff Writers

A small wildfire that broke out Wednesday in brush near Laguna Niguel quickly grew to 200 acres in windy and dry conditions, burned about 20 homes and prompted the evacuation of nearby residences and a luxury resort, fire officials said.

About 100 homes were potentially in the path of the Coastal fire, Orange County sheriff’s Capt. Virgil Asuncion said. Multimillion- dollar homes on Coronado Pointe Drive, Vista Court, and Via Las Rosa, as well as The Ranch golf course and resort, were evacuated. In addition, residents near Moulton Meadows and Balbo Nyes in Laguna Beach were advised to be prepared to flee at a moment’s notice.

The fire was reported at 2:44 p.m. in Aliso Woods Canyon, near a water treatment facility, and swept rapidly up steep terrain. It had burned about 3 acres as of 3:30 p.m., Orange County Fire Capt. Sean Doran said. By about 4:45 p.m., flames had crossed an access road and began moving toward homes. The fire continued to spread and grew to consume about 200 acres by about 7:30 p.m., Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said.

As the first homes began to burn, embers were cast into nearby crawl spaces and attics, igniting others from within, Fennessy said during a news conference Wednesday evening. Smoke was seen pouring out of several houses that were eventually engulfed by flames in TV news helicopter footage broadcast live from the scene. Fennessy estimated 20 homes had burned — the exact number damaged and destroyed would be determined by assessment teams beginning today.

One of several houses burns in an area of multimillion-dollar homes near Coronado Pointe Drive in the Coastal fire in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday. At least 20 homes were destroyed.  PHOTOS BY JEFF GRITCHEN — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Firefighters battle the Coastal fire near Vista Montemar and Coronado Pointe Drive in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday. About 100 homes were potentially in the path of the fire, authorities said. Many area residents also were ordered to evacuate.

There were no reports of any injuries as of 8 p.m., Fennessy said. A temporary shelter was set up at Crown Valley Community Center on Crown Valley Parkway.

Sue Price walked into the community center with help from her two neighbors, Celinda Garza and Tara Whittaker.

“ The girls told me, ‘We’re going and you’re going with us,’” said Price, 85.  Then she pointed out pet carrier Garza was carrying for her. In it was an orange and white tabby cat.

“I just got him for Mother’s Day from my son,” Price said. “I haven’t even named him.”

Along with the cat, Price brought some food for the cat and her own medication.

The three were among several dozen people who had taken shelter at the community center. The shelter had a place for pets, children and a general location where people could watch the news on big screens. There was also food donated by local restaurants.

An OCFA chaplain was also on hand to offer assistance to anyone who needed it.

In the meantime, residents from Niguel Ridge stood on a hill across from the fire Wednesday afternoon, staring at the thick, dark gray smoke. A few remarked how sad it was to see the smoke, knowing homes were burning.

Ground and air crews from the OCFA, Cal Fire, the Laguna Beach Fire Department and assisting agencies were working into the night to extinguish the flames.

Winds gusting up to 20 mph were fanning the f lames, and relative humidity in the area was measured at 52%, National Weather Service Meteorologists Mark Moede said.

“Gusts were up to 25 mph when the fire started,” Moede said about 5 p.m. “It will stay breezy for the next hour or so, but should drop-off as the sun drops below the horizon.”

The winds that drove the fire were not especially strong, Fennessy said.

“The big difference is, and were seeing it again, y’know, with the climate change,” Fennessy said. “The fuel beds in this county, throughout South-ern California, throughout the West are so dry that fire like this is going to be more commonplace. Five years ago, 10 years ago, a fire like this would likely have been stopped very small.”

Ready to evacuate

Back at the evacuation center on Crown Valley Parkway, Cheryl Flohr and her husband, Mark, were among those eagerly watching the news.

Their 48,500-square-foot home was in Palmea, the neighborhood next to hard-hit Coronado Pointe.

“Fred Minegar, (mayor in 2020) immediately engaged and drove up and down the streets honking, letting residents know,” Cheryl Flohr said. “They were so ready for us. I’m proud of my community and Laguna Niguel.”

Mark Flohr said he first became aware of the fire when he heard aircraft overhead and then saw smoke. Then he drove over to a vacant area overlooking the steep canyons above The Ranch resort in Laguna Beach and saw the flames.

Not long after, the couple got a knock on the door asking them to evacuate.

The couple made use of a list they created more than a decade ago that itemized what was important to them.

Among photo albums, hard drives, devices and charging cords were valuables that could never be replaced.

“I brought a glass doll head my mother played with 100 years ago,” said Cheryl Flohr. And, Mark Flohr brought some old engineering tools and century- old books.

The couple planned to stay with friends and family on Wednesday night.

“We came here first because we wanted to be where the information was,” Cheryl Flohr said.

Also at the center was Phil Charlton, who lives in an apartment along Pacific Island Drive.

“I didn’t see smoke but then I got a knock on the door and it was the fire department. They didn’t give me much time, so I just grabbed my credit cards and my phone.”

Charlton, who tunes pianos, understands the dangers of living in what he called “the best place in the world.”  “You see a fire like this and it goes through the brown brush and green brush,” he said. “You just don’t know what can happen.”  “People who live in brown canyons can’t complain about fire,” he said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

The last major fire in the area was the Emerald fire on Feb. 24. The earlier fire grew to about 150 acres before it was extinguished.

Flames from the wind-driven Coastal fire approach homes on Coronado Pointe Drive in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday afternoon. The blaze blew up to at least 200 acres.  PHOTO BY PATRICK SMITH

Fire leaves only the skeleton of a home on Coronado Pointe in Laguna Niguel.  PHOTOS BY JEFF GRITCHEN — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

An Orange County sheriff’s deputy runs from house to house as he tries to evacuate residents in the path of the Coastal fire in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday.

A firefighting helicopter drops water on hillsides in a effort to tamp down flames spread by winds Wednesday afternoon in Laguna Niguel.

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