John DeYoe spotted the residents in their open garage, gathering belongings they didn't have time to pack the night before when the fast-moving Canyon fire forced them to flee.
As firefighters gained the upper hand on the blaze in the Santa Ana Mountains on Tuesday afternoon, the residents had hiked to the top of their Corona hillside neighborhood to find part of their roof burned and the inside of their home damaged by smoke.
"It was just a tragic wind shift," DeYoe, a firefighter and spokesman with the Corona Fire Department, said of the wildfire that has charred 2,000 acres and threatened 1,900 homes. "I don't think those residents were really prepared."
DeYoe parked his pickup to help the residents, loading their suitcases, snake aquarium and an ice chest into his truck before giving them a ride down the hill, as evacuation orders were still in place.
After racing along the border of Orange and Riverside counties Monday night, the fire slowed Tuesday as Santa Ana winds weakened and weather conditions improved. By Tuesday evening, the blaze was 15% contained.
But the fire was a forceful reminder that Southern California's fire season is just beginning to reach its peak. October traditionally brings hot Santa Ana winds that can quickly spread brush fires, and autumn is generally when some of the region's most destructive fires have occurred.
Though this week's fire provided some dramatic images — including motorists passing tall flames along the 91 Freeway — it did not cause widespread damage to homes. The area north of the freeway was hit in 2008 by the much worse Freeway Complex fire, which burned dozens of homes and apartments.
Still, this week's fire rattled nerves.
At the Corona High School evacuation center on Tuesday, cars streamed in and out of the visitors' parking lot, unloading community donations.
They included fruit, fresh-baked cookies, fuzzy blankets, first aid supplies and endless packages of bottled water.
"All night long and through the morning, we've been texting and emailing since the community has come forward with everyone wanting to help," said school Principal Antonio Gonzalez. "Teachers are asking what they can do. The school staff was here until past midnight. This is everyone stepping up and showing how much they care."
Resident Joey Tu described the chaotic scene as his family evacuated their home in the Sierra del Oro neighborhood the previous day.
"It was far away, then suddenly it leaped toward us, and boy, we knew what we had to do," the 48-year-old said.
He, his son, Kyle, and his daughter, Karina, began throwing belongings into backpacks. They were sure to take pictures of their two-story house in case it caught fire, to include them in insurance paperwork.
"We never knew it would spread so quickly. Then we saw ashes in our back and frontyard and so my dad went for the computers and hard drives," Kyle, 9, said. "We were all panicking."
Karina, 15, a sophomore at Corona's Centennial High School, said she didn't have enough time to take any homework or school books. Seeing the group of three dozen evacuees set up in the gym, she figured she wouldn't be able to sleep among strangers. So she stayed in the family car overnight and scrolled through social media until 2 a.m. Tuesday, offering and receiving words of comfort from classmates struggling with the same situation across the city.
"Some of my friends are in hotels, some are with relatives. Everyone's stressed out, but we realize how lucky we are," she said. "I just want to make sure everyone we know is safe. What I learned from this is our animals, our people, are irreplaceable. During an emergency, nothing else matters."
The family took one of their dogs, a Siberian husky named Koby, but they had to leave behind their elderly shepherd mix, Sassy, who suffers from a brain tumor. At 15, Sassy moves too slowly, so they said they tried putting out plenty of food and water in the garage.
Crews, meanwhile, were fighting the flames amid high temperatures, gusty winds and remarkably dry air that continued to create tinder primed to burn.
"It's just getting hotter and drier," said Capt. Steve Concialdi of the Orange County Fire Authority.
The fire's size was listed on the Orange County Fire Authority website at 2,500 acres Tuesday morning but was reduced to 2,000 acres hours later.
Temperatures near the Canyon fire hovered around 90 degrees with winds moving at about 5 mph over the ridge tops, with the occasional 15-mph gust, said Miguel Miller, a forecaster with the
"Looking out, the biggest enemy is humidity," he said.
The area's westerly winds proved "a huge challenge," DeYoe of the Corona Fire Department said. Many days, at about 5 p.m., "the sundowner winds come and they shift directions, heading inland," he added. "We're battling this as best as we can."
Crews totaling 1,652 firefighters from at least five agencies continued working through the evening Tuesday, including firefighters from Anaheim Fire and Rescue, Cal Fire, Corona Fire Department, the Orange County Fire Authority and the U.S. Forest Service, DeYoe said.
Evacuation orders remained in place for residents of all homes south of Green River Road from the 91 Freeway to West Foothill Parkway, including the Skyline Drive area. Roads north of Green River Road and West Foothill Parkway were reopened to residents with valid ID.
Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.
9:40 p.m.: This article was updated with more information and a new containment number.
6:10 p.m.: This article was updated with context about fire path.
1:25 p.m.: This article was updated with interviews from an evacuation center.
11:20 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from the Tu family.
7:45 a.m.: This article was updated with new acreage and evacuation numbers.