While standing on Anaheim Fire Department’s Engine No. 2, a firefighter uses a hose to extinguish a palm tree’s flames across the street from the 20s building on Oct. 26. Firefighters had been dispatched to the Sunny Hills campus twice — at 11:36 a.m and again at 12:20 p.m. to respond to a palm tree that struck power lines and caught fire twice because of winds reaching 20 mph. (Tyler Pak / The Accolade)
Sunny Hills High School

High winds spark fire — twice — on palm tree across street from Sunny Hills, forcing evacuation of staff, teachers

While gusts of up to 60 mph wreaked havoc in Orange County for most of Monday, Oct. 26, and caused several wildfires totaling over 11,000 acres, the Sunny Hills High School campus in Fullerton was also momentarily threatened at one point during the school day.

A palm tree across from the 20s building on the south side of Lancer Way caught fire after being blown into a power line, prompting social science teacher Arlie Kearney, who was the first to report the fire at 11:36 a.m. — to notify office personnel who immediately pulled the fire alarm and called 911, thus forcing the evacuation by teachers and staff during fourth-period distance learning classes.

“The first thing that happened was a giant boom — really loud,” Kearney said, who was working in his classroom, Room 23 — right across from the small fire. “I was on Zoom with the kids, and [the classroom] just went black. A lot of the teachers had the same experience. So I looked outside, and there was a second really loud boom [within seconds], and there were sparks flying everywhere.”

The tree caught fire after winds, which reached up to 20 mph, pushed the palm tree toward power cables that lined the southern side of Lancer Way, principal Allen Whitten said. 

School officials immediately turned on the fire alarm and alerted the Fullerton Fire Department at 11:36 a.m., a standard procedure for any fire near campus regardless of size, Whitten said. Teachers and staff were evacuated to the basketball and tennis courts on the opposite side of campus while firefighters worked on putting the flames out.

“I told [my students], ‘Hold on guys; I’ve gotta go outside.’ So I went outside and came back a couple times, and then we had to evacuate,” Kearney said. “So when I did that, I told them they could just go and do their own thing.”

Social science teacher Robert Bradburn had a similar experience. 

“When I heard the boom, I thought perhaps it was the SH letters in the quad expanding or something farther away,” Bradburn, who was in Room 181 at the time, said. “I was surprised because it seems difficult that a fire would spread across the campus, but I knew [administration] wouldn’t pull the alarm unless there was a great problem.”

Firefighters eventually informed the principal that the situation would only endanger neighboring Raytheon Technology Corp., which led school officials to call off the alarm and give the green light for teachers and staff to return to their classes or offices.

“[The firefighters] let us know that the campus would be safe, but because of the location of the tree and the direction of the wind, they told us to keep an eye on it [for Raytheon’s sake] because it could spark up again,” Whiten said.

No one was injured, and no other damage was reported. It took about 10 minutes for Fullerton firefighters to extinguish flames on the tree — though now missing a few burnt fronds — as it stood waving in the wind. 

Within an hour after the first fire at 12:20 p.m., the then-smoldering tree caught fire again as winds continued in intensity.

Flames erupt again at approximately 12:20 p.m. Following this report, the Anaheim Fire Department, which had been dispatched instead of the Fullerton Fire Department, was called to put out the flames for good. (Tyler Pak / The Accolade)

By then, several staff members on campus had come to the small grassy area in front of the 20s building to observe the situation, and the school administration called 911 without pulling the fire alarm. 

“This time, the Anaheim Fire Department actually came out,” Whitten said of AFD’s Engine No. 2 that responded to the scene. “They had the high-powered water gun that was able to douse the fire quickly.”

That didn’t come without difficulty for the Engine No. 2 crew, though, as strong winds pushed the fire engine’s water spray in the opposite direction but to no avail as the AFD ultimately put out the flames.

Engine No. 2 fire officials could not be reached for comment, and no information was available at press time as to why Fullerton fire didn’t respond to the second incident, though according to online reports Fullerton fire crews were responding to neighboring fires in Yorba Linda and to a blaze that began near Laguna Lake in Fullerton. 

With a Red Flag warning for high winds in Fullerton still in place until 8 a.m. on Oct. 27, simply putting out the fire wasn’t enough. A representative from Southern California Edison, which maintains the powerline, then arrived and called for the affected palm tree as well as two others within striking distance of the power lines to be trimmed.

And approximately one hour after Engine No. 2 had left the scene, tree trimmers from Utility Tree Service arrived to cut the branches off the top of the palm trees. 

Whitten expressed his gratitude toward both fire crews. 

“Thank you to our firemen and our first responders who were able to come out today,” he said. “They’ll have a busy day ahead, so we appreciate them a lot for coming.”

Tyler Pak contributed to this story. A live broadcast of this incident can be found here.