Two wildfires are not only testing Orange County’s emergency response, but also the county’s ability to balance disaster management, evacuations and the Coronavirus pandemic at the same time.
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Fires in Irvine and Yorba Linda have caused roughly 100,000 people to evacuate their homes, after both wildfires grew quickly on Monday. On Tuesday afternoon, evacuation orders in some parts of Irvine were lifted.
At a Tuesday noon news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the fires are largely uncontained with the Silverado Fire at 5 percent containment, with 11,000 acres burned and Blue Ridge at 0 percent contained with 7,000 acres burned.
The fires got worse by a 2 p.m. news conference hosted by the Orange County Fire Authority.
The Blue Ridge Fire doubled in size.
“The Blue Ridge Fire, 15,200 acres burned, 0% contained. 10 homes damaged. 2,500 homes are under evacuation orders,” OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said during a Tuesday news conference with a host of local elected officials standing behind him in front of the camera just a week before election day.
“The Silverado fire is now 12,600 acres burned, 5% contained. No structures lost. 70,000 homes in Irvine remain under mandatory evacuation orders. 8,000 homes in Lake Forest remain under mandatory evacuation orders,” Fennessy said.
Once those brief updates were offered by public safety personnel, local officials spent the remainder of the Wednesday news conference thanking each other for their efforts to tackle the fire and keep people safe — something some viewers on the news conference’s Facebook live stream took notice of.
As elected officials congratulated each other on their response, many Facebook commenters asked whether they’d talked about the new fire information yet.
“Honestly I just missed the first five minutes, but so far I haven’t heard an actual fire update. Lots of every agency and city thanking the other agencies. I am so very appreciative of everyone’s hard work, but I would love to hear specifics about the fire, other than evacuation zones,” said one commenter on the live stream.
Fennessey said there’s over 1,800 firefighters on the fire line as well as 14 helicopters helping out.
“Today, additional resources have been assigned to both fires including firefighters, dozers, as you can see air support. We didn’t have that yesterday. We’re blessed to have that today,” he said.
Fennessy said five firefighters have been injured in the Silverado fire, with two of them in critical condition.
He said he spent time with families of the two hospitalized firefighters, who appreciated the public’s thoughts and prayers.
Fennessy reminded everyone the two men were “fighting for their lives as we stand here this afternoon.”
County Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michele Steel at the Tuesday news conference also announced the issuance of an emergency declaration. Gov. Newsom also said he has secured federal aid and is sending it down, along with some state resources, to help combat the fires.
The wildfires and the resulting evacuations come at a time when virus cases are beginning to increase across the state.
Newsom said 100,000 people from Orange County and Chino Hills have been evacuated to motels and hotels “per our COVID-19 protocols” instead of large community centers.
As he spoke, firefighters were still battling the two fires in Orange County that prompted mandatory evacuations in Irvine, Yorba Linda, Lake Forest, and Brea. Evacuation warnings were also issued for nearby cities like Tustin and Mission Viejo.
The fires have thrown a wrench into other aspects of OC life.
Registrar of Voters Neal Kelly closed down a voting center in Santa Ana, as well as a handful of ballot drop-off boxes, roughly a week before one of the most consequential election nights in recent memory.
And the county’s big, public coronavirus testing sites have closed for the day.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,454 county residents out of 58,980 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 OC residents annually.
As of Tuesday, 157 people were hospitalized, including 56 in intensive care units.
Newsom said virus cases are starting to pick back up.
“It’s starting to trend up slightly,” he said. “The hospitalization numbers here in California, the ICU numbers here in California — all beginning to trend back up.”
Local epidemiologists have warned of a second virus wave likely hitting Orange County in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the fire continues to disrupt a growing number of people.
Irvine Unified School District and other districts in the area are also closing schools.
On Monday the district had to evacuate some schools due to the fires and announced that school and distance learning would not take place today.
Tustin Unified School District also closed its schools including distance learning today out of abundance of caution. Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District announced that today would be a non instructional day because of the fires as well.
“Many families and staff in the Tustin Unified School District are being affected by the Silverado Fire,” reads the district notice. “All school-related activities and childcare facilities at TUSD school sites are cancelled as well.”
Schools in the Tustin district will be closed till further notice.
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.