Residents of fire-ravaged neighborhoods in Corona, Yorba Linda and Anaheim began returning Sunday, even as the stubborn Triangle Complex Fire that destroyed 155 homes and almost 25,000 acres continued threatening thousands more elsewhere in Southern California.
Some came back to smoldering remains. Others returned to relief as the often random movement of Southern California wildfires spared their homes.
Homes burned to piles of charred wood, metal and roofing tiles were bookended by untouched properties.
"The embers just catch hold," Shelly Steele said as she huffed and puffed her way uphill to her home on Mission Hills Drive in Yorba Linda. "Who knows how the wind blows?"
Highways 57, 91, 241 and 261 reopened Sunday. Winds diminished, aiding firefighters.
While some residents got to go home, the firefighting efforts shifted Sunday to Diamond Bar where fire crews worked to stem the blaze's advance.
Ash rained down. Plumes of smoke shot into the clear blue sky, visible for miles. Residents used garden hoses to wet down roofs, while air tankers dropped fire retardant directly onto backyards.
"This has been a very tough few days for the people of Southern California," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said after touring the damaged areas.
After erupting Saturday morning in Corona, the blaze tore threw subdivisions and shut down major thoroughfares as it marched into Orange County.
On Sunday, it spread into Diamond Bar in Los Angeles County and approached Chino Hills in San Bernardino County.
The blaze destroyed or damaged 259 structures in Corona, Yorba Linda, Brea and Anaheim, including 17 in Corona alone.
Flames had consumed 23,722 acres as of Sunday night. By 7:10 p.m., firefighters had 19 percent containment.
The fire began in a riverbed off Highway 91 near Green River Road. The cause remains under investigation, authorities said.
Six firefighters sustained minor injuries.
By Sunday night, more than 3,500 homes remained threatened and nearly 4,000 firefighters, working in 24-hour shifts, battled the blaze.
Weather conditions were expected to remain hot and dry overnight Sunday and into today, while winds in the Triangle Complex Fire area are expected to die down, a National Weather Service meteorologist said.
Temperatures will remain in the 90s, and winds in most areas will continue to come out of the east, but at less than 15 or 20 mph, meteorologist Steve Vanderberg said by phone.
RAIN OF EMBERS
The faint smell of smoke was still in the air in Corona where residents returned to more than a dozen homes off Crestridge Drive that were damaged or destroyed.
Greg Alvarado stayed put, doing what he could to protect his property.
"Smoke was coming up over the trees and embers were flying," Alvarado said. "We saw this huge black plume around 9 (a.m.) and that was it."
He said he fought back the embers with a hose, following instructions from firefighters who told him to frequently walk the perimeter of his home and check for flare-ups.
"It caught the eaves of the house next door," said Heather Alvarado, Greg's wife.
Neighbors were able to tamp down most of the ember fires before they got out of control, like Alvarado's neighbor's eaves. By early evening Saturday, Greg Alvarado said the danger had passed Corona.
"The firefighters were checking in the attics for smoke," Alvarado said. "By that time, I felt safe enough to join the family."
Residents said community organizers told them a meeting to discuss the fire damage with Corona emergency officials is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
A charred chimney, a few half-burned walls and what used to be furniture was all that was left of Mike Zatezalo's next-door neighbor's home.
A dazed look on his face, Zatezalo said he felt lucky the fire spared his home on Mission Hills Drive in Yorba Linda.
"Who knows why one house gets saved and another destroyed," he said.
Kept from their homes by firefighters who said the danger was still too great in the Hidden Hills neighborhood of Yorba Linda, residents turned a nearby Quiznos restaurant into a meeting and information-sharing place.
Shortly after the Orange County Fire Authority released a list of damaged or destroyed homes, residents sat down over a sandwich to review who lost everything, and recount what they saw as they rushed from their homes Saturday night.
"There was fire on both sides of the road," Ellen Haggerty Hill, 49, said. "I kept driving, but I was terrified."
Sharon Glassner, 43, was in the shower when the order to evacuate came in.
"If my husband hadn't been there and told me to get moving," she laughed, "I don't know what I would have done."
Hidden Hills residents up and down the canyon saw embers flying in the air.
As they waited for word of when they could return to their homes, residents could still smell the fire on the heavy winds. Ash slowly rained on parked cars.
Many said one problem regarding the evacuation was that there is only one way in and out of the neighborhood, via Esperanza Road.
Residents in Diamond Bar hoped for the best Sunday. The area will be the focus of firefighters today.
Crews worked throughout the day in the Tonner and Telegraph canyon areas with hand crews, bulldozers and a massive aerial assault by helicopters and air tankers, including a DC-10 jumbo jet.
Aided by dwindling winds, fire crews so far were able to prevent the level of destruction in Diamond Bar that had hit the other areas the day before.
Ken Sackett's home at the south end of Hawkwood Road in Diamond Bar was on the front line of the fight.
Firefighters plastered his back fence with fire-resistant foam. Air tankers dropped red fire retardant across his yard.
"The pool deck was covered with it," said Sackett, who stayed home with his wife Beth. "And if that's the worse thing that happens to us, we're very fortunate."
Dawn Becker, of Chino, and her 22-year-old son Travis Mercado spent Sunday working to protect the Diamond Bar home of Becker's mother.
"There's nothing we can't replace," Becker said. "But I just don't want to leave."
Residents along the ridge lines in the south part of Diamond Bar who ignored the sheriff's evacuation directives had a nervous day but were mostly relieved through mid-afternoon Sunday as winds stayed calm.
Crews lit backfires and clear fire breaks with bulldozers as handfuls of spectators watching from their yards.
All along Falcon Ridge Road, which abuts The Country Estates -- a gated community of custom built, seven-figure homes -- fire engines were spaced out every hundred feet or so.
Four- and five-man teams watched the fire from backyards, waiting for things to worsen.
Rashad Brown was one of only a few residents of the Fairwind Lane cul de sac still hanging around, keeping an eye on the two fingers of fire he could see from his backyard -- flames from the Carbon Canyon area to the south and smoke coming over a hill from Brea.
"I was just sitting there watching (the fire) yesterday afternoon," he said. "Sometimes I go out there and hit golf balls into the ravine."
Asked if he could have reached the flames with his driver, Brown said he had been thinking the same thing.
"I was wondering if I could hit it with my Big Bertha. Not quite," he said. Brown paused and laughed. "If it gets that close, I'm going."
This story was reported by staff writers John Asbury, Dug Begley, Sonja Bjelland, Gregg Patton, Dan Lee and Dayna Straehley. It was written by staff writer Duane W. Gang.
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008