Wildfire outside L.A. stops advancing as winds subside

4:17 PM, Jan 17, 2014   |    comments
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GLENDORA, California (CBS NEWS) -- Firefighters had largely tamed a tower of flame and smoke that obscured the sun and drove thousands from their homes in the foothill suburbs northeast of Los Angeles, but a week of dangerously windy wildfire conditions and a year of historic dryness meant that this blaze and inevitable ones to come remained a major threat. 

By nightfall Thursday, the wildfire that swept through about 2-1/2 square miles of brush in the San Gabriel Mountains and destroyed five homes early in the day had its progress halted and was 30 percent contained, Los Angeles County fire Deputy Chief John Tripp said. 

"I imagine by morning it's going to be much higher than that," Tripp said. "We've got good solid containment around almost all of the neighborhoods, and most of those areas are out." 

But the National Weather Service said a red-flag warning of extreme fire danger in effect much of the week would remain in place until Friday evening because of low humidity and the chance of the region's notorious Santa Ana winds gusting to 30 mph in the foothills and canyons. 

"We build up a little bit of confidence," Tripp said, "but we always still have a threat." 

Those conditions come with a bigger backdrop of a serious statewide water shortage and intensifying pressure on Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency. 

Such a move from Brown, who was planning a "major announcement" for Friday morning in San Francisco, would allow the state to request a broad emergency declaration from President Obama, expediting some water transfers, providing financial assistance and suspending some state and federal regulations. 

"Fire season just didn't end this year," Los Angeles County fire Inspector Scott Miller said.

Three men in their 20s, including a homeless man, were arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting the blaze by tossing paper into a campfire in the Angeles National Forest, just north of Glendora. They could face state or federal charges.

Glendora Chief Tim Staab said the men were trying to keep warm and the wildfire appears to have been an accident.

Staab  told CBS Los Angeles station KCBS-TV all three men were "apologetic."

"They are being cooperative," Staab said. "I've been told by detectives that one has made an admission to our detectives and has admitted to setting this fire."

The Angeles National Forest was under "very high" fire danger restrictions, which bar campfires anywhere except in fire rings in designated campgrounds.

Some 3,700 people from Glendora and Azusa evacuated at the height of the fire, county emergency officials said. Glendora residents were allowed to return home Thursday evening, but homes in Azusa remained under evacuation orders. Authorities said some 1,600 people remained evacuated.

Fire engines would stay in all the endangered neighborhoods through the night and helicopters were available to fly after dark if it became necessary, Tripp said. 

Nighttime gusts brought a few flare-ups, but they remained within fire lines. 

Two firefighters had minor injuries and a woman trying to fight the blaze near her home suffered a minor burn, Tripp said. 

Seventeen structures were damaged, including homes, garages, barns and other buildings, he said. 

At least 10 renters were left homeless when the fire destroyed rental units on the historic grounds of a retreat that once was the summer estate of the Singer sewing machine family. Statues of Jesus and Mary stood unharmed near the blackened ruins. However, the main, 1920s mansion was spared. 

"It's really a miracle that our chapel, our main house is safe," owner Jeania Parayno said.

Scott Wilhite, who rented a room in the guest house, told CBS News he lost everything. "Everything I have, except for what I have on," he said. "I don't have my driver's license, no money, no shoes, no pants." 

Alex Larsen, 50, rented a room at the estate. The musician had lived there for about four years. 

"All my possessions are toast, burned toast," he told the Los Angeles Times. 

The mountains rise thousands of feet above dense subdivisions crammed up against the scenic foothills. Large, expensive homes stand atop brush-choked canyons that offer sweeping views of the suburbs east of Los Angeles. 

Whipped by Santa Ana winds, the fire quickly spread into neighborhoods where residents were awakened before dawn and ordered to leave. 

Jennifer Riedel in Azusa was getting her children, ages 5 and 7, ready to evacuate. 

"They're a little nervous, but I'm keeping calm for them," she said. "I've been loading the car up with important papers and getting the kids dressed. We'll just take some essentials and get going if we have to." 

However, other homeowners chose to stay, despite firefighters' orders to get out. Some wore masks against the ash and smoke as they wetted down their properties with garden hoses. 

The last catastrophic fire in the San Gabriel Mountains broke out in 2009 and burned for months, blackening 250 square miles, killing two firefighters and destroying more than 200 structures, including 89 homes. 

The new fire could have abundant fuel to consume. Vegetation above Glendora, an upper-middle-class suburb of about 50,000 people, had not burned since a 1968 fire that was followed by disastrous flooding in 1969. 

Many homes are nestled in rugged canyons and ridges that made access difficult. 

More than 700 firefighters were on the scene, along with 70 engines and a fleet of helicopters and air tankers dropping water and retardant. 

The smoke was visible from space in satellite photos. The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory and urged residents to avoid unnecessary outdoor activities in directly affected areas.

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