LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A fast-moving California wildfire, started accidentally by three campers, roared out of control in foothills above Los Angeles on Thursday, destroying at least two homes and forcing more than 1,000 residents to flee, fire and law enforcement officials said.
The wind-whipped blaze erupted before dawn in the Angeles National Forest north of Glendora, about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
By mid-morning, the so-called Colby Fire had blackened more than 1,700 acres of drought-parched brush and vegetation, Los Angeles County fire officials said.
A thick pall of orange and black smoke hung over eastern Los Angeles County, stretching west to the Pacific Ocean. Drivers were advised to stay away as some 700 firefighters worked to save homes and cut containment lines around the flames, aided by eight fixed-wing air tankers and seven helicopters.
Three men who were spotted leaving the area where the blaze began were taken into custody, Glendora Police Chief Tim Staab said. Each was arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting a fire and was being held on $20,000 bail, he said.
“Reportedly they set a campfire and were tossing papers into the campfire and a breeze kicked up and set the fire,” Staab said. “They are being cooperative. I’m told one has made an admission to our detectives and has admitted setting this fire.”
The suspects were identified as Clifford Eugene Henry Jr. 22, of Glendora; Jonathan Carl Jarrell, 23, of Irwindale; and Steven Robert Aguirre, 21, of Los Angeles. Staab said Aguirre was homeless but that the men were not living at the campsite.
The flames prompted residents in parts of Glendora and neighboring Azusa to leave their homes on the order of authorities who said they could order more evacuations if the blaze were to spread. Temporary shelters were set up at an American Legion hall, a community center and a high school.
SCHOOLS CLOSED, SMOKE ADVISORY ISSUED
The fire destroyed at least two homes, and one person suffered minor burn injuries, said Jim Tomaselli, incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service.
Local media reported that one of those homes was a guest home at the Singer Mansion, a local landmark designed by architect Wallace Neff. Reuters could not immediately confirm this report.
Several elementary and middle schools and at least one high school were shut for the day, along with Citrus College, located about 2 miles from the fire lines, and Glendora city manager Chris Jeffers said the city had declared a state of emergency to free up resources.
The South Coast Air Quality Management district issued a smoke advisory for Los Angeles County and nearby communities, urging people in affected areas to remain indoors with doors and windows closed.
As the day wore on, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that had whipped the flames had died down, giving firefighters a chance to gain a measure of control over the blaze, officials said. But they remained concerned that winds could pick up again, driving the fire further into the national forest.
“Early this morning, when it broke out, it burned really rapidly, and it does appear like it’s laying down right now,” Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Keith Mora said. “We’re just trying to gain control prior to the heat-up in the afternoon.”
The fire was burning in steep terrain, near where houses were built right up to the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, and some isolated homes were nestled in the brush at the location of the blaze, Mora said.
“The topography is just really dangerous,” he said.
With Southern California suffering through several years of drought, officials had predicted a particularly intense fire season. Red Flag Warnings, indicating critical conditions, had been posted for many areas.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernadette Baum, Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)