After snapping power lines and flinging dirt and garbage across yards and freeways, hurricane-force winds Wednesday fanned wildfires, one of which charred part of the ecologically sensitive Upper Newport Bay.
Gusts up to 128 mph whistled through inland passes and canyons; sustained winds hit the coastal plains with a fury that more than made up for the late arrival of this year's Santa Ana winds.
By nightfall, having left mountains of debris in its wake, the wind was being blamed for driving at least two brush fires and one residential blaze. Firefighters--who just days earlier had expressed relief that the 1998 fire season had ended with no major conflagrations--scrambled to put out blazes in three corners of the county simultaneously.
"You have to move fast and stay on it," said Capt. Scott Brown, an Orange County Fire Authority spokesman. "You have to pull out all the stops when you have this kind of activity."
In Newport Beach, a late-afternoon fire in the marshes of the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Preserve climbed a cliff toward Santiago Drive, where nearly 40 homes were threatened. The blaze prompted a voluntary evacuation of residents as more than 100 firefighters from three cities joined the Newport Beach crew to battle the flames.
"It was scary as hell," said Chris Welsh, 35, who was at his home on Santiago Drive when the blaze broke out. The real estate developer watched in horror as a patch of flame erupted into a wall of fire 15 feet tall and moved swiftly toward his backyard. "I thought my house was going to go," he said.
Dozens of cliff-side residents, including Welsh, climbed onto wood-shake roofs and trained garden hoses on the shingles, coughing in the smoky air and straining to hear sirens that would mean help was on the way.
Arriving firefighters stationed themselves in 20 backyards along the cliff, hosing the hillside.
"That wind pushed the fire right up the side of the bluff," said Capt. John Blauer, a Newport Beach Fire Department spokesman. "In conditions like this, it may look like it's knocked down pretty good and then it'll erupt right back in your face. You can't let up."
Firefighters extinguished the flames by 7:20 p.m. No injuries or residential property damage were reported, but at least five acres of the preserve burned. The marshland is part of a 752-acre state-owned sanctuary known for its rich array of threatened birds, fish and sensitive plants.
Officials said the blaze was suspicious and that four teenage boys had been seen running from the marsh just as the fire started.
"We're not calling it arson at this point, but we would like to talk to them," Blauer said. "We don't know yet how much [the fire] is going to impact this protected area, but it can't be good."
Still, containing the fire in a relatively small area meant the damage was less likely to have significant impact, environmentalists said.
"If it's only five acres, it's probably not that serious," said Trish Smith, a biologist with the Nature Conservancy.
Electric Spark Starts a 10-Acre Blaze
Earlier Wednesday, electrical wires blown together by heavy gusts about 12:40 p.m. ignited a fire that burned 10 acres of an already heavily charred area near Black Star and Silverado canyon roads in the Santa Ana foothills. A 1,000-acre brush fire had burned the same area several months ago.
The wind velocity was too high to allow firefighters to use a water-dropping helicopter. So 80 firefighters from 17 agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry, battled the blaze from the ground. Crews continued to douse the embers through the afternoon and into the night Wednesday.
There were no injuries or damage to property, officials said.
In Fountain Valley, a snapped power line started a fire on the roof of a two-story home in the 16300 block of Rosewood Avenue. Firefighters quickly contained the blaze, and there were no injuries, though damage to the house was extensive, officials said.
Elsewhere in the county, it was flags flapping, gates slapping and garbage blowing.
"It's always trash day when the Santa Ana winds blow up," said Vincent Cipolla, 38, of Rancho Santa Margarita. "We live at the end of a cul-de-sac, facing north, and the wind comes down from the mountains and smacks right into our house. We get all the neighbors' trash."
Though the wind was not record-breaking, it was plenty strong.
"This thing would blow the feathers off a duck," said Jim Sleeper, an Orange County historian and weather watcher.
Angela Cruz, 28, of San Juan Capistrano was stunned when a Christmas tree rolled in front of her on northbound Santa Ana Freeway near the "Y" intersection with the San Diego Freeway.
"I said, 'Oh, my gosh, what's that doing there?' " Cruz said. "On days like today, people should not be buying trees and especially not driving them down the freeway."