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Silverado Fire in Irvine Prompts Thousands of Californians to Evacuate

IRVINE, Calif. — Tens of thousands of Californians were forced to flee their homes on Monday as a new fire ripped through Southern California, with high winds and low humidity combining to create some of the most dangerous fire conditions yet this year.

A vegetation fire called the Silverado Fire broke out on about 10 acres near Irvine early on Monday. By about midday, it had already burned about 4,000 acres. Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, said about 4,000 firefighters were fighting 22 wildfires across the state. This year, more than five million acres have burned across California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington State.

The rapidly expanding Silverado Fire was exacerbated by high winds and dry conditions, quickly forcing about 60,000 evacuations. Videos from the scene showed gusts blowing as hard as 80 miles per hour.

“The winds are horrible,” said Brian Alexander, 43, who evacuated his house on Monday morning with his wife and 5-year-old son.

The National Weather Service issued a high wind warning for much of Southern California on Monday.

While packing his vehicle before he evacuated, Mr. Alexander said, one gust was so strong that it slammed his car door as he tried to load up his belongings.

With the wind came particles of ash and dust, creating “by far the worst air quality that we’ve had,” Mr. Alexander said.

By a little after noon on Monday, five of eight evacuation facilities in Irvine were full, according to the city’s website.

Video from the local news station KTLA showed cars parked along an overpass on the 134 Freeway as flames raged below and columns of smoke covered the roadway.

Charlane Stephenson, 67, a retired nurse, said she was at a doctor’s appointment on Monday morning when she received an evacuation alert on her cellphone. When she got home, a police officer outside her condominium door was ordering her and other residents to evacuate the building.

“When I got up this morning, I smelled smoke,” Ms. Stephenson said. “It was scary. I have lived in Irvine for four years since my husband died, and I have never been through anything like this.”

The Silverado Fire is only the latest in a season that has uprooted the lives of thousands across the American West.

In Colorado, a weekend blizzard knocked back two huge wildfires that killed an older couple, displaced thousands of people and destroyed dozens of homes in the northern mountains. But fire officials said the blazes, though weakened, were still smoldering under the snow.

“Things really laid down,” said Noel Livingston, the incident commander on the East Troublesome Fire, which has been burning through ranches and second homes in Grand County, on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. “But it’s not going to put the fire out.”

Most of Colorado is in a severe or exceptional drought, which means that one early-winter snow dump will not alleviate the dangerously dry conditions and dead brush that ignited like a mountainside of matchsticks last week, allowing the fires to explode.

Weather forecasters said there was little precipitation in the forecast for the next week, meaning the fires could continue to grow once the snow melts off.

Experts have linked the worsening fire season to climate change. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuels have led to warmer and drier conditions — making trees and brush more prone to burn.

In California, the new evacuations came as hundreds of thousands of people lost power on Sunday because of what Cal Fire called “extreme fire weather conditions” such as high winds and low humidity that could increase the risk for more wildfires.

The state’s biggest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, began shutting off electricity to 361,000 customers in 36 counties, including Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, the company said in a statement. The utility expects to begin restoring power on Tuesday.

The company said the shut-offs were in response to a “significant, offshore wind event starting Sunday that is forecast to have the driest humidity levels and the strongest winds of the wildfire season thus far.”

On Monday morning, the National Weather Service in San Francisco issued red flag warnings, meaning that fire weather conditions were occurring or would be shortly, from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz. The service said winds would be strong enough “to down weakened trees and power lines.” The service added that “extreme caution should be taken to prevent new fire starts.”

Videos shared by the Orange County Fire Authority showed a thick haze of brownish smoke blowing over charred debris and lines of fire by roads.

Pacific Gas and Electric, which emerged from bankruptcy in June after incurring an estimated $30 billion in wildfire liability, has increasingly used shut-offs to prevent its equipment from causing fires during extreme weather conditions.

This month, Pacific Gas and Electric reported to state regulators that its equipment might have been involved in the cause of the Zogg Fire in September, which killed four people, destroyed more than 200 homes and businesses and burned 56,338 acres. Last week, fire investigators announced that the utility’s equipment had caused the 2019 Kincade Fire, which destroyed 374 buildings and burned 77,758 acres.

In Irvine, outside the University Community Park shelter, the sky was visible through a haze of smoke, and winds were strong enough that it was difficult for some drivers to control the wheel.

Jianing Fu, 20, who lives with her mother, said she could see smoke when she woke up around 8 a.m. on Monday. “The sky was orange by then, but I wasn’t able to see any fire,” Ms. Fu said. “I told my mom, we need to evacuate immediately.”

Ana Facio-Krajcer reported from Irvine, Will Wright from Jersey City, N.J., and Johnny Diaz from Miami. Ivan Penn contributed reporting from Burbank, Calif.

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