The Canyon fire that gave thousands of Corona residents a scare was holding at 2,000 acres Tuesday night, unchanged from 24 hours earlier, but was only 15 percent surrounded by containment lines, authorities said.
Update (Wednesday, Sept. 27): Canyon fire evacuations lifted; only residents with ID let back inAn evacuation order remained in place for a second night for about 600 Corona homes south of Green River Road, authorities said.
The same seven schools that were closed Tuesday will be closed again Wednesday, Corona-Norco Unified School District officials announced late Tuesday: Adams, Coronita, Eisenhower, Franklin and Prado View elementary schools, Citrus Hills intermediate and Cesar Chavez Academy.
- Related: Latest updates on the Canyon fire
More than 1,600 firefighters continue trying to keep the flames away from houses, said Capt. Larry Kurtz of the Orange County Fire Authority. About 20 helicopters and air tankers also were taking part in the fight.
"We will be doing night drops as well," Kurtz said.
After sunset, plenty of flare-ups could be seen on the hillsides behind the evacuated homes, but most lasted for a few minutes before their lights were extinguished. The situation was significantly different from late Monday, when raging flames were burning down toward the houses.
Firefighters were allowing evacuated residents to briefly stop at their homes — but only with ID and only by foot, out of fear that the winds could shift and return flames to their doorstep. All day long, a stream of residents hiked into the neighborhoods to check on their property or pick up essential items.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday declared a local emergency, which is the first step toward accessing state funds for damage repair.
Only one structure is known to have burned, Kurtz said — though throughout the evacuated area, scorched vegetation showed how close the flames had gotten to plenty more. Also, one vehicle burned Monday: a tractor-trailer on the 91 Freeway.
Amid the chaos of Monday night, a Corona motorcycle officer received minor injuries when he was struck by a vehicle that skirted one of the barricades in the evacuation zone. The driver fled but was found a short distance away and arrested on suspicion of felony hit-and-run.
The fire was reported just before 1 p.m. Monday off the eastbound side of the 91 in Coal Canyon in far eastern Anaheim, west of the Green River Road exit.
Kurtz said the cause remains under investigation.
A Caltrans spokeswoman, asked about reports circulating on social media, confirmed the agency was using roadside flares to help protect a sweeper that was working on the 91 about 12:45 p.m. Monday in the same area where the fire started.
"No winds or very minimal winds" were present at the time, spokeswoman Lindsey Hart said, adding that Caltrans is mindful of wind conditions when flares are used.
"There's absolutely no way to know what could've caused" the fire, Hart said. "Many factors could've been involved."
Kurtz said the investigation into the cause will take some time, as investigators chase leads, talk to witnesses and look for physical evidence. Even then, he said, investigators might not be able to nail down a single cause.
"We'd rather take our time and do our investigation accurately," he said, "than to rush to a conclusion that we'd have to walk back later."
Corona became endangered a few hours after the fire started Monday afternoon when the winds shifted from northeast to southwest. By Tuesday morning, they had reversed again and were pushing the flames toward Irvine Lake in the foothills east of the 241 toll road. The lake was closed as firefighters used it as staging ground.
There was no immediate threat to Anaheim on Tuesday, authorities said.
The winds continued to shift direction throughout the day but didn't create any major problems, Kurtz said.
"The fire has pretty much followed the contour of the 91 Freeway," he said. Speaking shortly after 7 p.m., he said the active fire was burning toward Sierra Peak in the mountains south of the 91, near the Orange-Riverside county line.
Fire activity slowed Tuesday "due to aggressive ground and aerial firefighting efforts and more favorable weather conditions," fire officials wrote in an evening update that said full containment was expected by Sunday.
"The fire did give us a break," Kurtz said. "We always welcome the opportunity to go on offense."
Kurtz said the goal for Wednesday will be to ramp up the amount of containment. The evacuation orders won't be lifted, he said, until containment grows considerably.
"In order to get the thing out, we have to go over every inch of the fire perimeter," he said.
Overnight Tuesday into Wednesday, only light winds were expected, said Mark Moede, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
"That will be a big advantage for the firefighters out there," Moede said.
On Wednesday, winds will be light in the morning, then after about noon will blow from the northeast from 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 to 20 mph. That direction is typical for the afternoon and evenings in the Inland Empire, Moede said.
Roads, schools, air quality
Roads within the evacuated area remain closed, but roads to the north are now open to residents with valid identification. In Orange County, northbound Black Star Canyon Road is closed at Silverado Canyon Drive, and southbound Coal Canyon Road is closed at Gypsum Canyon Road.
One eastbound lane of the 91 near Green River Road remained closed Tuesday, slowing traffic for the second day in a row. There is no estimate for when it will reopen.
In an attempt to help, transportation officials lifted tolls and opened the eastbound express lanes to all traffic through 9 p.m. Tuesday.
The decision to keep seven schools closed was made late Wednesday "out of an abundance of precaution," Corona-Norco district officials said. Those schools were judged to be closest to the active fire, most affected by road closures and at highest risk of evacuation. Because of the smoky air, other schools in the district may be placed on a "mandatory inclement weather schedule."
A smoke advisory will be in effect at least through Wednesday morning for all of Orange County, Corona and Norco in Riverside County and southwest San Bernardino County.
"Everyone worries about the flames, but smoke can impact you even if you're miles away from the fire," Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County public health officer, said in a news release.
'It was like an inferno'
The evacuation order covers all homes in the foothills south of Green River Road, which eventually becomes Foothill Parkway, between the 91 and Trudy Way, a small street near the Skyline Trail. An evacuation center has been set up at Corona High School.
Mita Mizan, who lives on Hidden Hills Way just south of Green River Road, said she and her husband, mother-in-law and two sons fled their home about 8 p.m. Monday.
"There were police everywhere and firefighters," she said Tuesday morning, wrapped in a colorful shawl as she readied to take her 16-year-old to school. "They said it was mandatory we had to leave and my sons wanted to leave so we did."
However, they returned a few hours later.
"It was very close and very scary. I've never seen a fire like this in this area," she said.
Mizan said it was hard to leave her home of almost 20 years, but the heat from the flames that scorched her neighbor's back yard was enough to get her and her loved ones out the door with only their most important documents and possessions.
Donna Davis planned to stay overnight in their Dominguez Ranch home for a second night, despite the evacuation order.
"I was ready to leave," Davis said, referring to Monday night, when a hill behind her house turned into a fireball.
"I was packed. I had the dog. The engine was running," Davis said. "Then my husband wasn't coming. He said, 'I just want to spray the patio cover.' That's the only wood we have on the house. Everything else is concrete and stucco."
Then he — and she — decided to stay, Davis said.
"It was like an inferno up here. It was scary," she said. "You could hear it. You know how people talk about it sounding like a train? Well, it's really true."
A few doors down, Fred Alvano did evacuate Monday night. And he intended to spend another night in a hotel Tuesday.
"It was pretty scary (Monday) night," Alvano said, pointing up the street. "This hill right here was on fire as we evacuated. We managed to get all of our pictures out — and my golf clubs."
Alvano walked a mile up a steep hill late Tuesday to reach his house.
"I'm going to start hosing down the patio cover and gazebo," he said. "I don't see fire, just smoke. But there are some hot spots, I'm sure."
Michael Zeller said he'd been through other fires, but none as bad as the Canyon fire. "This was just crazy," he said.
He showed off video of a night-flying helicopter dropping water on the flames late Monday.
"Everyone started cheering down below," he said. "I have goosebumps just sharing it."
'Part of the community'
Several local organizations stepped up to help evacuees. The Ralphs on Green River Road was providing folks with coffee, snacks, fruits and pastries and a place to charge their cellphones.
"Honestly, that's why we do this," said Assistant Manager Michael Soria. "We do this because we're part of the community."
Resident Judy Harris said the trip to Ralphs gave her the chance to mingle with other evacuees.
"I've lived here 27 years and never met my neighbors," Harris said. "It took something like this to meet my neighbors."
Harris added: "And it was my birthday. I celebrated it at Ralphs. Now, I just want a cupcake with a candle on it."
The Islamic Society of Corona-Norco opened up to lodge evacuees who had nowhere else to go.
"That was the minimum we could do," said Ahsan Baseer, president of the Islamic Society of Corona-Norco. "It's our duty to make sure the community and our neighbors are safe."
One woman stayed there for several hours Monday night, and Baseer said any evacuees who need shelter are still welcome. To contact the mosque, call 951-736-8155.
And a local U-Haul was offering residents 30 days of free storage.
"I was watching the news (Tuesday) morning and seeing all the people who had to evacuate their homes," said Sylvia Satchell, president of the U-Haul Company of Riverside, who went through a similar ordeal last year. "I remember my situation last year and how that affected me. I wanted to help.
Residents who are interested in accepting U-Haul's offer can call 951-736-7811.
Staff writers Brian Rokos, Brian Whitehead and Scott Schwebke contributed to this report.