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Wind heightens risk as Southern California fires keep tens of thousands away

Crews tried to beat back two out-of-control wildfires in Southern California on Tuesday that have kept tens of thousands of people out of their homes even as another round of dangerous fire weather raises the risk for flames erupting across the state.

Utility company says its equipment is under investigation as possible source of blaze

Residents are silhouetted as they watch the fire burning in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Monday. California is bracing for more fire danger from fierce winds. (Ringo Chiu/Reuters)

Crews tried to beat back two out-of-control wildfires in Southern California on Tuesday that have kept tens of thousands of people out of their homes even as another round of dangerous fire weather raises the risk for flames erupting across the state.

Fierce winds that drove twin fires through brushy hills near cities in Orange County a day earlier were expected to pick back up, although not to the earlier extremes, according to the National Weather Service.

Southern California Edison reported to regulators that it was investigating whether its equipment might have sparked the Silverado Fire near the city of Irvine. With utility equipment blamed for several destructive fires in recent years, Edison was among the utilities in California that deliberately cut power to customers to prevent equipment from being knocked down or hit with debris in the winds and sparking wildfires.

Irvine residents had to evacuate after a fire broke out early Monday, while later and a few miles away, another blaze, the Blue Ridge Fire, sent people fleeing from the Yorba Linda area. More than 90,000 people were under evacuation orders.

WATCH | Firefighters battle wildfires in Southern California:

Firefighters battle two ongoing wildfires in Southern California

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Firefighters are battling the Blue Ridge wildfire near Yorba Linda, Calif., which combined with the Silverado fire has caused over 100,000 mandatory evacuation orders in Orange County. 0:28

One home was damaged and crews protected hundreds more as winds pushed flames down ridges toward neighborhoods. There was little containment of the fires.

Forecasts call for Santa Ana winds to keep blowing over much of Southern California, with some of the strongest gusts howling through Orange County, where the major blazes are. The winds were expected to be lighter than a day earlier and die down by nighttime.

The gusts were so strong Monday that they toppled several semitrucks on highways and forced firefighters to ground their aircraft, though they got back up by late afternoon and were expected to fly Tuesday.

Two firefighters critically injured

Two firefighters, one 26 and the other 31, were critically injured while battling the larger blaze near Irvine, according to the county's Fire Authority, which didn't provide details on how the injuries occurred. They each suffered second- and third-degree burns over large portions of their bodies and were getting help breathing at a hospital, officials said.

Omar Zaman smelled smoke as he left his Irvine home for work Monday. He spent the day at his office refreshing online news reports about the fire.

"I'm just like, freaking out as I'm reading all of this," he said. Zaman obsessively checked security camera footage from his house, which is in the evacuation zone.

"When I initially looked at it, it was just filled with smoke. I couldn't even see to the other side of the yard," he said.

Southern California Edison cut power to about 38,000 homes and businesses, although it restored some power by Monday night.

In Northern California, easing winds allowed Pacific Gas & Electric to begin restoring power after the largest of five safety shutoffs this year.

A red-flag warning of extreme fire danger was in effect into Tuesday morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains and some coastal and valley areas. (CBC News)

At its peak, PG&E cut power to about 345,000 customers — an estimated one million people — in 34 counties. The  largest U.S. utility said it has restored power to more than 156,000 customers. Electricity is expected to come back at the remaining homes and buildings by Tuesday night after crews do inspections to make repairs and ensure equipment is safe.

A dozen reports of damage had been received, PG&E said.

'Bone-dry' humidity

Nearly two dozen wildfires were reported in Northern California Sunday night and Monday but all were rapidly contained without serious damage.

However, the fire threat was far from over in many parts of PG&E's vast service area. A red-flag warning of extreme fire danger was in effect into Tuesday morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains and some coastal and valley areas, with warnings extending into Tuesday evening for some higher elevations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Continuing "bone-dry" humidity could dry out vegetation, which can contribute to "catastrophic" fires, PG&E meteorology chief Scott Strenfel said.

Firefighters work in a neighbourhood as a blaze dubbed the Silverado fire approaches Irvine, Calif., on Monday. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

"The conditions are very, very unsafe," said Mark Quinlan, the utility's incident commander.

However, once the winds ease, the weather should remain calm through the weekend, Quinlan said.

After this event, no offshore high-wind events are forecasted for the next five days, but no rain is in sight either, Strenfel said.

Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.

October and November are traditionally the worst months for fires, but already this year 8,600 wildfires in the state have scorched a record 16,600 square kilometres and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other buildings. There have been 31 deaths.

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