For days, the ember lay dormant in a smoldering clump of oak.
Fierce Santa Ana winds then whipped the ember to life and carried it some 60-80 feet west into unburned vegetation, sparking the destructive Canyon Fire 2 that began Oct. 9 and ended up destroying or damaging 80 structures, including 15 homes.
Anaheim Fire & Rescue Chief Randy Bruegman revealed the cause of the Canyon Fire 2 at a news conference Monday, Nov. 6, amid a county investigation into whether fire agencies didn’t respond to the Canyon Fire 2 aggressively enough, as some critics have claimed.
The ember in the clump of oak was a remnant of an earlier blaze, Canyon Fire 1, which ignited around 1 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25.
Bruegman said the Canyon Fire 1, which ended up destroying five structures, was caused by a Caltrans flare that was catapulted some 30 to 40 feet into brush off the shoulder of the eastbound 91 Freeway by a passing car.
Caltrans crews had been sweeping the freeway to clear debris.
“Sometimes these fires will sit for several days, and it just takes the right conditions to reactivate it, and that’s what we saw in this fire,” Bruegman said of the Canyon Fire 2, which ended up chewing through 9,217 acres of land.
The Canyon Fire 1 began just south of the 91 Freeway near the old Coal Canyon exit and spread to 2,662 acres before it was declared 100-percent contained on Sept. 30.
After that, fire crews from several agencies checked the burn area numerous times to make sure there were no dangerous hot spots. They responded to nine calls of possible flare-ups — seven in Anaheim — but found no flames, Bruegman said.
The chief said it’s not unusual for embers to smolder for days without being noticed.
The ember that started the Canyon 2 Fire was embedded in the base of an oak tree located about 20 feet within the containment area of the Canyon 1 burn area, Bruegman said.
After several days of easterly blowing winds, strong Santa Ana winds suddenly shifted direction and started blowing west, carrying the ember into bone-dry fuels that ignited the fast-moving and destructive Canyon Fire 2.
The Canyon Fire 2 began around 9:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 9, about an hour after a motorist on the 91 Freeway reported seeing flames in the Canyon 1 containment area.
The CHP responded to that motorist’s call, but officers reported seeing only dust and black soot blowing around, but no flames, Bruegman said. The chief estimated that the origin of the Canyon Fire 2 was some 150 feet west of where the motorist told authorities he had seen flames.
Responding to a reporter’s question at Monday’s news conference, Bruegman said he doesn’t believe the Canyon Fire 1 was declared 100-percent contained too early.
“There’s only a finite amount of resources available, and we can’t sit on things that we believe are out,” Bruegman added.
The Canyon Fire 2 was declared 100-percent contained on Oct. 17.
Bruegman began Monday’s news conference outside Anaheim Fire & Rescue Station 10 by expressing his condolences to the residents of four homes in Corona that were destroyed during Canyon Fire 1, and to the residents of the fifteen single-family houses — 13 in Anaheim, two in Orange homes — destroyed in Canyon Fire 2.
“(We) extend our best wishes as they continue their recovery process,” Bruegman said. “Having a home destroyed by fire, or even having to leave your home in a firestorm, is probably one of the most traumatic things that an individual or family can go through.”