Southern California wildfire spreads; 3 men arrested

A helicopter drops water on a fire burning near homes on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Azusa, Calif. A wildfire burned out of control near homes in the dangerously dry foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains early Thursday, fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds that spit embers into neighborhoods in the city below, igniting trees. Evacuations were ordered for houses at the edge of the fire. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)A helicopter drops water on a fire burning near homes on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Azusa, Calif. A wildfire burned out of control near homes in the dangerously dry foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains early Thursday, fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds that spit embers into neighborhoods in the city below, igniting trees. Evacuations were ordered for houses at the edge of the fire. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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GLENDORA, Calif. — Nearly 2,000 residents were evacuated and two homes burned in a wildfire that started early Thursday when three people tossed paper into a campfire in the dangerously dry and windy foothills of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains, authorities said.

Embers from the fire fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds quickly spread into neighborhoods below where residents were awakened in the pre-dawn darkness and ordered to leave.

The three suspects, all men in their 20s, were arrested on charges of recklessly starting the fire that spread smoke across the Los Angeles basin and cast an eerie cloud all the way to the coast.

One resident suffered minor burns in the neighborhood abutting Angeles National Forest, just north of the San Gabriel Valley community of Glendora, according to Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby. Hundreds of homes were saved because of firefighters’ preparations, he said.

At least 2 ½ square miles of dry brush were charred in the wilderness area about 25 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

A man walks off the rooftop after spraying water on his home as firefighters battle a wildfire on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Azusa, Calif. A wildfire burned out of control near homes in the dangerously dry foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains early Thursday, fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds that spit embers into neighborhoods in the city below, igniting trees. Evacuations were ordered for houses at the edge of the fire. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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Ash rained down on the city, said Jonathan Lambert, 31, general manager of Classic Coffee.

“We’re underneath a giant cloud of smoke,” he said. “It’s throwing quite the eerie shadow over a lot of Glendora.”

Police said the three suspects were detained near Colby Trail, where the fire was believed to have started. At least one was homeless, Glendora Police Chief Tim Staab said. Police identified the suspects as Robert Aguirre, 21, of Los Angeles; Jonathan Carl Jarrell, 23, of Irwindale; and Clifford Eugene Henry, Jr., 22, of Glendora.

A resident spotted “a couple of suspicious fellows moving down from the hill into the wash” and called police, Mayor Joseph A. Santoro said. Glendora officers picked up two of them, and a Forest Service officer detained the third, he said.

Because of the conditions the national forest was under “very high” fire danger restrictions, posted on numerous signs, which bar campfires anywhere except in camp fire rings in designated campgrounds. U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman L’Tanga Watson said there are no designated campgrounds where the fire began.

The notorious Santa Anas, linked to the spread of Southern California’s worst wildfires, picked up at daybreak. The extremely dry Santa Anas blow downslope and can push fires out of the mountains and into communities below. The area, which has been historically dry, has been buffeted by the winds which have raised temperatures into the 80s. The Santa Anas typically begin in the fall and last through winter into spring. A wet winter reduces fire risk, but the whole state is experiencing historically dry conditions.

TV news helicopters spotted embers igniting palm trees in residential yards as firefighters with hoses beat back flames lapping at the edges of homes. Homes are nestled in canyons and among rugged ridges that made access difficult.

Glendora police said officers went door to door ordering residents of the city of 50,000 to leave. Citrus College, located in the heart of Glendora, canceled classes for the day.

Several schools were closed. The Glendora Unified School District closed Goddard Middle School, which was being used as a fire department command post. District spokeswoman Michelle Hunter said 900 students attend the school, which is near the fire and within the evacuation area.

Between 1,700 and 2,000 residents were evacuated and the order included 880 homes in Glendora and the neighboring foothill city of Azusa. Many residents, some wearing masks, used garden hoses to wet the brush around their houses, even as firefighters ordered them to leave.

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