(TNS) - A wind-fed wildfire surged over the Anaheim Hills on Monday, burning several homes and forcing thousands to evacuate as fire crews struggled to battle the rapidly growing blaze.
The fire broke out around 9:20 a.m. near the 91 Freeway and Gypsum Canyon Road, and quickly leaped the California 241 toll road. It raced up a ridge and hit tract homes at the top of a hill. Several caught fire and continued to burn even as firefighters sprayed the structures with water.
By 9 p.m., the blaze had scorched 6,000 acres and destroyed 24 structures. One firefighter had to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Two hours later, an Anaheim police spokesman said the fire was 5 percent contained. All evacuation orders were to remain in place overnight, he said, and it was “doubtful” residents would be allowed to go home Tuesday.
The Canyon No. 2 fire put an added drain on state firefighting resources as first responders battled more than a dozen blazes that erupted in Northern California on Sunday night, leaving 10 dead and destroying 1,500 structures.
By Tuesday, “we’re gonna be as stretched as we can be,” said Steven Beech, an incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Orange County fire officials evacuated more than 5,000 homes in three cities as the fast-moving fire grew, spitting smoke into the air that was visible over Disneyland and caused officials to issue air quality warnings in parts of Los Angeles County.
Some residents found themselves racing out of their homes as the flames licked the edges of their neighborhood. Dio Compolongo, 22, said he operated “on total instinct” when he noticed the blaze was creeping close to his family’s residence in the Anaheim Hills. He rushed to stir his two younger sisters, both of whom were home sick from school, as he frantically checked websites to find an evacuation route.
“How do you know what to do in situations like this?" he asked after escaping to an Anaheim evacuation center about noon Monday.
Fire crews had not been able to contain any portion of the blaze Monday evening, said Sgt. Daron Wyatt, an Anaheim police spokesman, and strong winds were making it difficult to figure out where the flames might jump next.
“With the wind-driven event, this fire can change behavior very rapidly,” he said during a news briefing.
About 1,000 firefighters from multiple fire task forces are battling the blaze. Three helicopters were making water drops overnight, Wyatt said.
Overnight shelters were open at Katella and El Modena high schools.
Evacuations were ordered south of the 91 Freeway, west of the 241 toll road, north of Nohl Ranch Road and east of Serrano Avenue.
Tustin police also ordered residences north of Jamboree and Tustin Ranch roads to evacuate. Several elementary schools in the area were evacuated as well, with students moved to Canyon High School in Anaheim. Several regional parks were also closed as strong winds pushed smoke into Orange and Santa Ana.
Tustin Unified School District, along with Santiago Canyon College in Orange, canceled classes and activities at all school sites Tuesday.
At a strip mall downhill from the evacuated neighborhoods, a line snaked out from a nearby gas station. Residents of an assisted living facility filed into buses, and ambulances could be seen transporting residents away.
Families cast concerned glances up toward the smoke-covered hills, over which helicopters were ferrying water from a reservoir. Some used the area as a rendezvous point.
By the time Eric Schmidt, 48, had driven home from his job at Disney on Monday morning, police wouldn't let him back into his neighborhood. Parents frantic to pick up their children at a nearby elementary school had taken to abandoning their cars and going to grab their children on foot.
Schmidt’s wife, Marigold, left their home with only their three dogs. His son Ethan walked from his high school and the family reunited at the strip mall parking lot.
"It came so fast you couldn't even grab anything," said Schmidt, who added his family didn't have a change of clothes. A neighbor at the end of the cul-de-sac had told him the flames had reached his back yard. Houses lower on the hill were burning.
John Carmona, a retired welder in his early 70s, had to race out of his duplex as the smoky odor from the blaze rose.
“This intense wind doesn't help. It's only going to get worse," he said. “I have no choice but to walk away.”
Carmona got to safety, but he had to leave behind his cocker spaniel, Cali, after he was unable to find the dog’s collar and leash.
Officials had set up a refuge for large animals at the Orange County Fairgrounds, and a specific staging area for horses at Yorba Regional Park in Anaheim. Evacuees needing an overnight shelter were being directed to the Downtown Anaheim Youth Center, the East Anaheim Community Center and El Modena High School in Orange.
Because of the speed of the fire, responders were not attacking the blaze directly, focusing instead on moving people out of its path, Beech said. Firefighters hoped to take a more direct approach against the blaze, which could allow them to stop its advance, if conditions become more favorable late Monday or early Tuesday, he said.
Winds were likely to calm down overnight, Wyatt said, but officials feared that low humidity and a return of strong gusts could pick back up and fuel the blaze Tuesday.
“We’re hoping that the weather goes in our favor,” he said.
Bob Hill said his trip to the doctor’s office to pick up cold medication was cut short by a text message from city officials warning him of the fire Monday morning. He immediately contacted his wife.
“Get out. Get the pictures and get out,” he wrote in a frantic text.
Hill, 66, said he had already lost a home in Chatsworth during a 2008 wildfire. As he watched the potential path of Monday’s fire on television, he remained calm despite fearing he might lose another.
"I've faced this before,” he said. “What else can I do?"
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