“Wildfire — we need to go.”
Those were the words Irvine City Council member Melissa Fox used Monday morning, Oct. 26, to wake her son Max, a trained firefighter, warning him about the swelling Silverado Fire burning a few miles from the Fox’s home.
Fox’s neighborhood, near the Tomato Springs Trail, became one of the first areas that required evacuation in Irvine.
Moments earlier, at 7:17 a.m., Fox received a photo via text of a large smoke cloud over the Irvine area from lawyer and current Irvine City Council candidate Lauren Johnson-Norris.
“Good morning. OCFA got this?” — Lauren Johnson-Norris regarding early smoke from Silverado Fire.
Fox, who served as a director for the Orange County Fire Authority for more than three years, said she is familiar with the spread of wildfires, and began checking active fire maps to determine if OCFA was aware of the smoke Johnson-Norris was seeing.
“My commissioner Lauren Johnson-Norris, who lives across town from me in University Park, texted me a picture of a plume of smoke — behind her house,” Fox explained in an interview with Irvine Weekly.
“I looked at the information on Orange County Fire Authority, and saw there was indeed a vegetation fire — but it was on my side of the town.”
Fox contacted the station chief to report smoke in the area, to ensure a dual fire event was not in progress.
“It turns out the winds were so strong, [it was] pushing the fire along the ground like fog,” she explained. “So when it was getting to the other side of town, that’s when it was lifting.”
Thanks to the text, and Fox’s prior knowledge of wildfires, the Fox family decided it was time to start packing belongings and prepare for a potential evacuation.
“Around 7:30 a.m., we started to smell the smoke and ash was coming in the windows, I know what these things can do, so we were packing — never really thinking that we were going to go,” she said.
By 9:00 a.m. on Oct. 26, the Silverado Fire had grown to nearly 2,000 acres as Orange County Fire Authority closed the portions of Highway 133 and the 241 Toll Road.
Mandatory evacuations for Orchard Hills on Irvine Blvd: From Bake to Jamboree. Ground and Air support are currently battling the flames. The 241 is closed from Santiago to the 133. Structures are threatened. #SilveradoFire
Media staging at the entrance of Irvine Regional Park. pic.twitter.com/hpB6c2k0Cr
— OCFA PIO (@OCFireAuthority) October 26, 2020
With the cars packed, the area quickly filled with smoke and ash had already began falling.
At 9:16 a.m., Fox sent a text to her son Max, a trained hazmat firefighter, who was knocking on doors in the neighborhood, encouraging people to gather belongings and leave as soon as possible.
“Let’s go,” she wrote.
They would drive separate, and later reconvene at the Newport Beach Residence Inn.
While the Fox’s were somewhat prepared for the evacuation, as the family left the neighborhood Fox described driving into a scene of smoke-caused low visibility, jammed streets, and the inability to determine exactly where the fire was.
In one word, Fox described the disorienting scene as she and her husband drove along side streets with the family dog, a husky named ‘Chief’, trying to avoid traffic and make their way out of Irvine — at the same time as 60,000 other Irvine residents.
“Terrifying,” Fox said without hesitation.
“Portola was jammed [at the 133] — you could smell the smoke and the ash was blowing, but the skies were blue — I had no idea how close the fire was,” she said. “Then all of a sudden it was dark, you couldn’t really see over the hood — and it was scary.”
With the traffic backing up, and the conditions worsening, Fox said her husband made an illegal u-turn onto Irvine Blvd., by Highway 133, and headed south toward Portola High School, eventually making their way to Alton Parkway, toward the 405 Freeway and out of Irvine.
“I saw hundreds and hundreds of cars coming down Irvine Blvd., going to the 133 like we were doing, I called the police chief right away and told him we have hundreds of people evacuating into the fire.”
Once the Fox’s made it to Newport Beach, an overhead shot from a news broadcast on the hotel television finally revealed a true size of the blaze, which still had yet to reach any level of containment.
Others experienced similar traffic issues during the unexpected Monday morning evacuations.
On Monday, Oct. 26 at 10:20 a.m., Nicolas Del Rossi was forced to evacuate Irvine from his work. Del Rossi said a co-worker told him about the fire and that the company would be evacuating the building.
Del Rossi described a similar circumstances, with traffic jammed near Interstate 5.
“Either freeway or side street there was traffic, I tried to get through where I could to get away from the cars, before more folks began evacuating. I took the 5 freeway from Barranca Ave., to Jamboree, then I got off the freeway and took side streets along the freeway following my Waze driving app to get to the city of Orange quick to be with my family,” Del Rossi explained in interview with Irvine Weekly via Facebook Messenger.
On Monday at 12:15 p.m., the Orange County Fire Authority reported that two hand crew members were critically injured battling flames on the ground.
By 1:00 p.m., the Silverado Fire had grown to 4,000 acres, prompting the mandatory evacuations for more than 20,000 homes across parts of Irvine and Lake Forest.
At the Orange County Fire Authority command center, Post-it Notes were used to mark the waves of mandatory evacuations across the city.
Fox added that once all evacuations were all accounted, more than 70,000 people were forced out of their homes in less than two hours.
“Blue tags first round. Green tags second round. Total evac 90,838 not including businesses,” Fox explained via text to Irvine Weekly.”
As the Silverado Fire continued to spread east, the smoke began to catch the attention of 22-year-old Baker Ranch resident Amal Abdallah, as she was driving home from Anaheim around 3:00 p.m.
Abdallah, who lives with her parents and seven siblings, said it was difficult convincing her parents that the fire posed a real danger. However, she became more concerned as she saw the fire getting close through her bedroom window.
“My parents are super old school. They think they can defeat anything, so they were not wanting to evacuate,” Abdallah said in an interview with Irvine Weekly. “But when I saw it getting really close, I started packing my stuff, around 4:00 [p.m.]”
Abdallah said she was able to drive to her aunt’s house in Irvine on Walnut Ave., but then drove back to Baker Ranch, because her family was hesitant to leave.
“I had to come back, because my family didn’t want to leave — my parents, actually – that didn’t want to leave, but the smell was getting really bad — it was getting to the point where it smelled like we were camping, it smelled like we were in front of the fire,” she said. “Then, finally we heard the cops, going around the neighborhood, going door to door telling people you have to evacuate.”
Abdallah said reality set it at that point for her parents, and they grabbed what they could as they were forced to leave. The Abdallah family is a large family, with two adults and six children living in the home, who all fled the home in four cars.
“We’re a big family, I have six siblings, I have four sisters and two brothers, so in total we’re nine, so getting us out of the house was not that easy.” she said. “It was just really scary because when we were leaving, it was chaos — people were cutting each other off, speeding, there was no order.”
At 4:42 p.m., Abdallah snapped a photo, as street closures around Alton and Bake Parkway created a giant bottle neck of traffic, leading to confusion and panic among those evacuating.
“People were coming to turn right on Alton, then they’d see it blocked off, so they’re making a U-turn, going on Bake, and then right when you make a U-turn there’s like tons of cars coming from three directions, all wanting to go on Bake too.”
By 5:13 p.m., Monday, Oct. 26 the Silverado Fire had grown to more than 7,200 acres and the Irvine Police Department announced mandatory evacuation orders for all residences between Great Park and Bake, and north of Toledo until the city limits.
“It was like a scene out of a movie, it was just very chaotic,” Abdallah explained.”
Overnight Monday, the Silverado Fire continued to burn and scorched more than 11,000 acres by Tuesday, Oct. 27. As the fire burned for a second night into Wednesday, Abdallah said her brothers went to go check on the families home, and the roads were open, but the flames were still largely visible.
On Tuesday, Oct. 27, Baker Ranch resident Omar Abdullah captured flames from the #SilveradoFire engulfing landscape near Baker Ranch, and peaking over a ridge in near Alton and Commercente Dr. Lake Forest.
In total, the Silverado Fire burned more than 13,000 acres from Oct. 26 to Friday, Oct. 30.
On Tuesday, Oct. 27, at 1:45 p.m., more than 90,000 residents were still evacuated between Irvine and Lake Forest, but Irvine Mayor Christina Shea told Irvine Weekly that the city “was out of danger.”
“We are waiting to hear when families can return. Still a few hot spots but OCFA did a great job protecting Irvine,” Shea said via text to Irvine Weekly on Oct. 27.
Partial evacuations were lifted later Tuesday afternoon. All mandatory evacuations in relation to the Silverado Fire were lifted on Wednesday, Oct. 28.
On Friday, Oct. 30, Cal Fire reported that the Silverado Fire was 12,591 acres, and 70 percent contained. As of 7:00 pm, the fire’s acreage was decreased, “due to more accurate mapping.”
#SilveradoFire Irvine area in Orange County is 12,591 acres and 70% contained. Decreased acreage is due to more accurate mapping. In Unified Command @OCFA_PIO
— CAL FIRE (@CAL_FIRE) October 31, 2020
While the cause of the Silverado Fire has yet to be determined. Southern California Edison is now investigating a “lashing wire” as a potential catalyst in igniting the fire.