The Coastal fire raced up a rugged canyon Wednesday afternoon with menacing speed.
Soon, flames pushed past a dirt trail and began licking up onto the edge of a row of sprawling ocean-view homes in Laguna Niguel. Wind gusts from the Pacific Ocean topped 20 mph, causing palm trees to sway and carrying embers into homes.
One by one, the homes erupted in flames — more than a dozen, according to television news reports.
As firefighters battled to save homes in the Coronado Pointe neighborhood, fleeing residents were left to wonder whether theirs had survived.
Sara Nuss-Galles watched the fire grow from her ridgetop home on Via Estoril in Laguna Niguel for more than an hour before deciding to leave.
Plumes of smoke billowed above the hillsides as a steady stream of ash fell.
“My clothes smell from the hour I spent in the house,” she said. “It’s just plumes of smoke. It’s very scary.”
Nuss-Galles and her husband, Arie Galles, grabbed a few personal items and their two cats, Pitzel and Ketzel, and drove to a friend’s home a few miles away.
Along the way, they saw people parked along the sides of the roads, standing on the beds of their pickup trucks and in their trunks watching the fire.
Around 5:30 p.m., sheriff’s deputies went door to door in her neighborhood to tell people to evacuate.
“It’s just awful,” she said.
Tim White, 54, evacuated his Laguna Niguel house with his wife. He said he lives in the Monarch Summit neighborhood, south of the fire, and decided to move before the order came.
“My wife and I were home working, and we heard the plane flying overhead, and we thought, ‘That’s a low plane,’” White said, standing outside the Crown Valley Community Center with his 17-year-old daughter. It was a plane dropping retardant on the blaze.
“We walked down the block, and we saw the smoke and flames, and we bugged out,” he said. “I’m trying to remain calm. The helicopter reports look like they’re in our favor.”
A few evacuees gathered in a big room at the community center, planted before a large screen showing live news of the fire. Snacks and water bottles were on hand. A separate room was opened for evacuees with pets.
One of the evacuees was Cindy Kramer, 55, who fled with her mother. She said she lives in the Niguel Summit neighborhood near the fire, but her home so far was unaffected.
“Our place wasn’t mandatory evacuation, but everyone was leaving,” she said. She said she has been in the neighborhood for 15 years. She packed clothes, passports, phones. She said she wasn’t sure when it would be safe to return home or where she would spend the night.
“We have friends in the area,” she said. “Lucky I got gas this morning too.”