5 homes burn in Southern California wildfire; 3 arrested

10:29 PM, Jan 16, 2014   |    comments
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A wildfire burns in the hills just north of the San Gabriel Valley community of Glendora, Calif. on Thursday, Jan 16, 2014. Southern California authorities have ordered the evacuation of homes at the edge of a fast-moving wildfire burning in the dangerously dry foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

(USA TODAY) LOS ANGELES -- A wildfire fanned by extremely dry winds raced out of control through the foothills east of the city Thursday, destroying five homes, forcing thousands to evacuate and shutting down schools.

Firefighters said they had checked its spread by evening, aided by calmer winds, and some evacuees were allowed back to their home. Officials said the fire was 30% contained.

Three people were in custody, accused of accidentally sparking the blaze with a campfire that police said they had used for warmth overnight.

The fire, in the San Gabriel Mountains near Glendora about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, started early Thursday and quickly grew to more than 1,700 acres, authorities said.

Five homes were destroyed and 17 structures were damaged, Deputy Chief John Tripp of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said.

"We were able to save hundreds if not thousands of homes," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

Glendora police Capt. Timothy Staab said three men were being held on $20,000 bail each. Clifford Henry, 22; Jonathan Jarrell, 23, and Steven Aguirre, 21 -- who described himself as homeless -- are accused of recklessly starting the fire. Staab said one of the men admitted they were tossing paper in a campfire when the wind kicked up. He did not say which one.

"One was very remorseful for starting this fire,'' Staab said.

The three could face additional federal charges, Staab said.

Two firefighters and a civilian were hospitalized with injuries, he said.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman L'Tanga Watson said damage assessment teams were working with Los Angeles County officials. "The good news is that the winds have eased and the fire is slowing down. We don't have it controlled or contained, but we are definitely getting a handle on it."

More than 550 firefighters, eight helicopters and seven planes were battling the blaze. Almost 100 firetrucks were being used, many of them to protect neighborhoods from sparks, Tripp said.

The Glendora school district closed five schools; Citrus College also canceled classes.

Helicopter TV footage showed an unknown number of homes burning. When local resident Rita Abouchedid went to bed Wednesday night, there was no fire. She told the Los Angeles Times she awoke Thursday morning to the sound of neighbors pounding on her door, warning her to leave.

She said she drove her three teenagers to their grandparents' house and then drove back to her home.

"I thought, 'I feel like an idiot, driving back up when everyone's leaving,'" she told theTimes as she stood on her roof. Family members and friends helped the couple fight the approaching flames. "My husband didn't want to leave, we couldn't leave him alone."

Palm trees around her were catching fire, and electrical transformers were sparking. "It's like a dream, it isn't real," Abouchedid said.

Santa Ana winds, which often fan Southern California's worst wildfires, had picked up at daybreak. Temperatures were the 80s, warm for the season, as the winds sent dry and hot air across the region in a reversal of the normal flow of cool air from the Pacific.

By afternoon officials said winds had died down, leaving the fire still burning but lessening the threat of flames advancing on residential neighborhoods, at least until winds resume.

Tripp said fire engines would remain in the hillside neighborhoods overnight as a precaution, and that helicopters equipped for night flying would be available if needed to drop liquid on flare ups.

Relative humidity was just 8%, and red-flag warnings denoting extreme fire conditions were extended until Friday evening.

California has seen rainfall below normal levels for months. Red flag warnings for critical fire weather conditions were posted from Santa Barbara County south through Los Angeles to the U.S.-Mexico border, along the Sierra Nevada, and in areas east and north of San Francisco Bay.

Fires that struck windy areas of the state earlier in the week were quickly quashed by large deployments of firefighters, aircraft and other equipment before the flames could be stoked by gusts into major conflagrations.

Spawned by surface high pressure over the interior of the West, the Santa Anas form as the cold air flows toward Southern California, then speeds up and warms as it descends in a rush toward the coast. Some of the most extreme gusts reported by the National Weather Service topped 70 mph.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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