A powerful wildfire continued to burn Tuesday through the well-populated suburban canyons of Southern California, creeping up to the edges of homes and down to the shoulder of a major freeway.
Fast-moving firefighters, however, were able to beat back the blaze burning in Corona, Anaheim and Chino Hills Monday and Tuesday, keeping damage to a minimum as more than 1,000 people evacuated from their homes.
The fire had surged to more than 2,000 acres after starting at 1 p.m. Monday. Twenty-four hours later, it still was only 5 percent contained. Authorities say 900 firefighters were assisting.
Firefighters have been working around the clock to protect 300 homes threatened by the flames, but there's concern that erratic Santa Ana winds in the area could fuel another flare-up.
"We are worried about when the winds kick up and it warms up today," said Captain Steve Dohman, spokesperson for the Orange County Fire Authority. "So we're bringing in a number of helicopters in addition to firefighters on the ground to make sure we get the hot spots, knock out any potential sparks so we don't have any threat to the homes."
Gale Conoway was among the estimated 1,500 people who were ordered to evacuate when the fire first raced down canyons and slopes toward their homes. On Tuesday morning, some were allowed in without cars to check on their homes, so he walked up the steep road to his palm tree-studded neighborhood just off the 91 freeway.
“I just want to go back up there and make sure my house is still standing and what shape it’s in," he said. As it turned out, there was no major damage, although embers burned holes in patio furniture and a jacuzzi cover.
Helicopters flew overhead, dropping load after load of water on the still-burning fire up the hill.
Conoway said he had just 10 minutes to pack up and get out Monday night. He took what he could: “Computer tower, a few changes of clothes, birth certificates, passports, photos and animals. Oh, yeah, bicycles.”
Just one home was damaged in the area — remarkable given that the charred earth reached right up to the fence line of many homes.
Another resident, Frank Martinez, described seeing embers flying through the air as hundreds of firefighters sprayed down roofs and back patios.
“But what saved everything was ... the helicopter made like four drops … and they were pinpoint, perfect drops, so,” he said.
His next step was to meet with insurance representatives who showed up in the neighborhood .
There are currently 11 helicopters and seven fixed-wing aircraft dropping water on the flames. Dohman with the Orange County Fire says crews are expected to remain on the scene over the next few days. Meanwhile, the CHP has shut down roads throughout Corona.
Mandatory evacuations have been ordered in the Dominguez Ranch area of west Corona where approximately 1,000 people live, and voluntary evacuations have been issued for the rest of west Corona. The fire also caused an off-ramp closure on the eastbound 91 freeway Tuesday morning.
Authorities are monitoring winds that may shift to bring the fire toward Anaheim.
The fire is also reducing air quality in several counties across the southland. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has issued a smoke advisory for Orange County, southwest San Bernardino County and parts of L.A. and Riverside counties through Wednesday morning.
Patrick Chandler with AQMD told KPCC that smoke from the vegetation fire has created unhealthy air conditions.
"People with respiratory or heart disease issues, older adults, children should really consider remaining indoors," Chandler said. "Going for a very long run or trying to tough it out, we highly suggest that you don't do that."
Watch a GIF of a projection showing where the smoke from the Canyon Fire is likely to go between Tuesday and early Friday morning, courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service:
Note: Projection shows likely path of smoke from fire between Sept. 26 at 5 a.m. and Sept. 29 at 2 a.m.
Jeff Peterson of Corona arrived at his home of 17 years about two hours after the fire had been burning, and the wind appeared to be blowing it away from his house as he watched it with a neighbor.
Then the wind changed, and so did his mood.
"We just looked at each other and said, 'it's time to go get the valuables,' " Peterson told the Orange County Register.
Wildfires had burned in the canyons around his house, but never one like this, he said.
"I never thought that we'd see it," Peterson said. "It was unreal, watching this happen. The flames made so much noise, they sounded like jet engines."
Peterson and between 1,000 and 1,300 others from about 300 homes, all in Corona, were under evacuation orders.
The damage was relegated to a single warehouse-style building and one big rig that was in flames on State Route 91. That freeway was acting as a fire line blocking the fire's spread.
But with some lanes closed, traffic was backed up for several miles. The Tuesday morning commute was likely to be extremely difficult.
Conditions were favorable for the overnight firefight, with temperatures dipping into the 60s and humidity above 20 percent.
Liquid-dropping planes were grounded after dark, but helicopters were making drops on the blaze through the night.
Intense flames could be seen creeping down hills over subdivisions where ash was raining down.
Cora Angeles, 66, prayed and cried as she sat in a park car after frantically fleeing from the flames that raged toward her home. She was able to leave with only important documents, clothes and her 12-year-old granddaughter.
"We don't know what's going to happen," Angeles told the Los Angeles Times. "At least we know we're going to be alive."
A huge plume of smoke could be seen over much of Orange County, including by the thousands of fans at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where a large crowd was watching the Angels play the Chicago White Sox.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
This story will continue to be updated.