Desperate, weary and hot, more than 1,000 firefighters were making “fantastic progress” in their battle Tuesday against a massive Orange County blaze that blackened 7,500 acres and forced the evacuation of 5,000 homes.
The fire was 25 percent contained, but a giant orange glow and smoke covered much of the sky all the way to Disneyland and beyond.
Officials said they hoped most residents evacuated could return to their homes by the end of the day Tuesday.
Firefighters who battled the westward wind-whipped blaze when it broke out Monday are now focused on confronting off-shore gusts.
Twenty-two structures have been damaged, with 5,000 more threatened by the blaze, according to Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Larry Kurtz. Fourteen structures were destroyed.
A unified command of state and local firefighters have 1,098 personnel battling the blaze, Kurtz said.
Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation for Orange County late Monday, freeing up state resources to help with battling the fire. The federal government Tuesday approved a disaster declaration for California, focusing mostly on fires in the northern part of the state that have killed at least 15 people.
Steve Beach, the Cal State Fire chief of Riverside’s division, said the numbers of homes, garages and shelters damaged by the blaze were preliminary so the number could go higher.
“We are making fantastic progress” on halting the flames, Beach said.
Most of the fire has been soused on the west side of the 241 Tollway, Beach said.
“That doesn’t mean it’s out, but it’s no longer expanding the perimeter,” Beach said. “Our focus now is shifting to the east side of the 241.”
Most of the homes threatened are west of the tollway. It’s mostly brush on the east side.
“We hope to have a lot of you back in your homes this evening,” Beach said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, as does the first Canyon Fire, Beach said.
The American Red Cross has overnight shelters opened at El Modena High School, 3920 E. Spring St., in Orange, and at Katella High School, 2200 E. Wagner Ave., Anaheim. East Anaheim Gymnasium, 8165 E. Santa Ana Canyon Road, is open for evacuated residents during the day, and it is also a hub for residents who need a police escort to go to their homes to get medicine or check on a pet, according to city spokesman Mike Lyster.
All of the 91 Freeway lanes were re-opened, with the 241 southbound and northbound lanes closed from the 91 to Santiago Canyon, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Tino Olivera. The northbound 261 tollway was also closed at the 241, he added.
Santiago Canyon, which turns into Chapman Avenue, is closed at the 241, cutting off traffic northbound from Santiago Canyon to Jamboree, Olivera said.
Chapman University in Orange remained closed Tuesday due to the smoky air, according to Chapman spokeswoman Sheri Ledbetter.
“Classes are canceled and operations are suspended,” Ledbetter said. “The campus is not directly threatened by the fire and students in the residence halls are safe.”
Students who live on campus can still get meals at the dorms, but students who live off-campus who were evacuated can find shelter at the Randall Dining Commons, Ledbetter said.
Santiago Canyon College was also closed Tuesday. Classes at the college’s Chapman Center or the College & Workforce Preparation Center were meeting as scheduled, according to college spokeswoman Judy Iannaccone.
Earlier Tuesday, water drops were made by three helicopters — supplied by the Orange County Fire Authority, the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service — said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi.
Fourteen helicopters and six fixed-wing aircraft have been made available for deployment in the firefighting effort, which has involved about 1,100 firefighters from various agencies, said Daron Wyatt of Anaheim Fire and Rescue.
The fire prompted the evacuation of about 5,000 homes in Anaheim Hills, Orange and Tustin and threatened about 3,500 homes, Wyatt said in a briefing after daybreak Tuesday.
Firefighters battled the flames Monday amid dry, gusty conditions that prompted red flag warnings across the region. One firefighter suffered a minor smoke-inhalation injury, Wyatt said.
The fire erupted Monday about a mile from the area scorched by the recent Canyon Fire, which blackened more than 2,600 acres and took more than a week to contain.
Smoke from the blaze could be seen for miles in all directions, prompting warnings from health officials for people to remain indoors.
The fire initially broke out near the Riverside (91) Freeway east of Gypsum Canyon Road, near the Coal Canyon flashpoint of September’s Canyon Fire, according to the OCFA.
But while last month’s Canyon Fire burned east, winds of about 25 mph pushed its sequel to the west on Monday, prompting mandatory evacuation orders for residents south of the Riverside Freeway and west of the 241 toll road. The evacuation area was repeatedly expanded.
Officials in the neighboring city of Orange issued evacuation orders for all residents north of Santiago Canyon road to the city border with Anaheim. That order was later extended south to Chapman Avenue, then south again into the Santiago Hills area as far south as Canyon View Avenue. The Tustin Ranch area was also evacuated.
Residents with large animals were urged to take them to the Orange County Fairgrounds.
The Country Car Pet Resort at 4691 Valley View Ave. in Yorba Linda was accepting companion pets at no cost during the emergency and can accommodate 120 dogs and around 50 cats.
Yorba, Irvine and Santiago Oaks regional parks were all closed to the public “as a precaution due to the proximity of the fire,” said Marisa O’Neil of OC Parks.
Three elementary schools — Running Springs, Anaheim Hills and Canyon Rim — in the Orange Unified School District were evacuated Monday, with students bused to Canyon High School.
District officials said those three schools will remain closed Tuesday, along with Chapman Hills Elementary, Linda Vista Elementary, Panorama Elementary, Santiago Charter School, El Rancho Charter School and El Modena High School.
Residents needing information about the fire may call one of the following non-emergency information lines:
— Anaheim, (714) 765-4333;
— Irvine, (949) 724-7000;
— Orange County Sheriff’s Department, (714) 628-7085;
— Orange, (714) 744-7495; and
— Tustin, (714) 628-7085.
—City News Service
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