As the Canyon fire came racing toward Corona homes Monday night, winds whipping up 50-foot towers of flames, ash and embers raining down on residential streets, the situation looked dire.
"I didn't think I would see our home again," said 88-year-old Carmen Sarmiento.
But thanks to the work of more than 1,900 firefighters from across the region, only three homes were damaged and none were destroyed, officials say.
As residents began to return to the neighborhoods, waving to and even hugging firefighters, the overwhelming sentiment was gratitude.
"They are our angels," said Sarmiento, who walked up San Ramon Drive with her son, Manuel Sarmiento, to thank the firefighters. "Our guardian angels."
She hugged one of the firefighters who was standing on a sidewalk greeting the returning evacuees.
"They did so much," Sarmiento said. "Angels."
As of Wednesday evening, the fire remained at 2,000 acres, or just over 3 square miles, and was 35 percent contained, said Capt. Larry Kurtz with the Orange County Fire Authority. The size hasn't grown since Monday night, while containment more than doubled from Tuesday night.
He said firefighters had most of the northern edge of the fire contained and were now focusing on the southern edge, away from the freeway, where the flames pushed into the Cleveland National Forest.
"We're building lines as we go," he said.
Although the fire has not gotten any larger, Kurtz said they are not claiming full containment until a physical line – some sort of break that will keep the flames from spreading – has been built all around the fire.
Kurtz said fire officials will still be patrolling the neighborhoods south of Green River Road/Foothill Parkway where evacuations had been in place, "Just to be on the safe side."
Video: Canyon fire evacuee returns to heavily damaged home
'An amazing job' by firefighters
When the evacuation was lifted about 10 a.m. Wednesday, a few residents came home to find damage, others saw the evidence of frighteningly close calls and still others were relieved to find their property unscathed.
Carson Richert was still in shock from his first brief visit home Tuesday, when he discovered a hole in his ceiling and insulation all over the floor. Fire officials say an ember likely entered his attic and started a fire. While the structural damage was daunting, none of his personal belongings were destroyed.
When Sandra Raynolds saw the fire cresting a hill Monday night, she grabbed her little dog, Chuy, her credit cards and her checkbook.
"It was so scary," she said.
On Wednesday, she saw the flames had charred vegetation a few feet from her rear patio.
"It's incredible what they did," said of the firefighters who saved her neighborhood.
She and her sister, Maria Johnson, both gave hugs to Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi.
Johnson said she didn't expect to see her home still standing.
"It's an amazing job they did," said Johnson, who moved in four years ago with her husband and her sister. Their San Ramon Drive house was recently remodeled.
"Thank you. Thank you for risking your lives. We're very grateful for your work," Johnson said.
The last fire in the same general area was in 2006, Concialdi said.
The Canyon fire started Monday afternoon off the eastbound 91 Freeway near the Orange-Riverside county line, just within the eastern limit of Anaheim. The cause is still under investigation.
A communications site that's part of Riverside County's public safety radio network was damaged when a propane tank exploded at the Sierra Peak site, county Fire Chief John Hawkins told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
At the fire's most dangerous point, 1,900 structures were threatened, fire officials said. About 600 homes were evacuated Monday night as the fire, which had been burning for a few hours, suddenly tripled in size in just over an hour. Classes were canceled Tuesday and Wednesday at seven schools near where the fire was burning.
All evacuations were lifted Wednesday and all roads were open, but only residents with ID were being allowed to return.
With the evacuation over, all schools will reopen, but district officials said they will continue to monitor the air quality in case activities need to be modified.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District said the fire was producing less smoke Wednesday than before, but air quality could still be unhealthy in Orange County, Corona and Norco.
Before the evacuation order was lifted, some residents of the Dominguez Ranch neighborhood were anxious to return home.
"There is no more fire," a rushed Nick Chavez said about 8 a.m. "(The roads) should be open now."
He and his 7-year-old his grandson, also named Nick Chavez, evacuated Monday and walked home Tuesday night because, while people with ID were being allowed in, roads were closed during the evacuation.
Both then had to trek back down Wednesday morning to their car parked at a shopping center outside the evacuation zone.
Others expressed thanks to firefighters.
"To all the firefighters and all the first responders, we just want to say thank you," said San Ponte Road resident Carlos Teves, whose family put up a sign in their yard to show their gratitude.
"It could have been a lot worse," Teves said. "We just wanted to let you know our thoughts and prayers are with your for helping us out and saving our community."