GLENDORA, Calif. — Santa Ana winds that quickly fanned a campfire into a wildfire that destroyed five homes and threatened foothill neighborhoods east of Los Angeles eased Thursday, helping firefighters stop its spread.
The fire swept through 1,700 acres of brush in the San Gabriel Mountains early in the day but by nightfall it was 30 percent contained.
“The weather cooperated quite a bit today. We didn’t get the wind … that we thought,” Los Angeles County fire Deputy Chief John Tripp said.
Authorities planned to reopen evacuated Glendora neighborhoods, allowing back some of the 2,000 people ordered to leave the area.
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However, fire engines would remain to guard the area overnight, he added.
The National Weather Service said a red-flag warning of extreme fire danger would remain in effect into late Friday because of low humidity and the chance of winds gusting to 30 mph in the foothills and canyons.
The wildfire, which erupted early Thursday, damaged 17 homes, garages, barns and other buildings, Tripp 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.
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.
Two firefighters had minor injuries and a woman trying to fight the blaze near her home suffered a minor burn, Tripp said.
Three men in their 20s, one homeless, were arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting the blaze by tossing paper into a campfire in the Angeles National Forest, just north of Glendora.
Glendora Chief Tim Staab said the men were trying to keep warm and the wildfire appears to have been an accident.
“One was very remorseful for starting this fire,” he said.
The men could face either state or federal charges, depending on whether the campfire was on federal forestland, he added.
The Angeles National Forest was under “very high” fire-danger restrictions, which bar campfires anywhere except in fire rings in designated campgrounds.
There are no designated campgrounds in the area where the fire began, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman L’Tanga Watson said.
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.”
Other homeowners chose to stay, despite firefighters’ orders to get out. Some wore masks against the ash and smoke as they wet down their properties with garden hoses.
The last catastrophic fire in the San Gabriel Mountains was in 2009 and burned for months, blackening 250 square miles, killing two firefighters and destroying more than 200 structures, including 89 homes.
The flames could have abundant fuel to consume. Vegetation above Glendora had not burned since a 1968 fire that was followed by disastrous flooding in 1969.
Glendora police went door to door ordering residents of the upscale city of 50,000 to leave. Citrus College and several other schools canceled classes.
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.
Large parts of Southern California have been buffeted all week by the region’s notorious Santa Ana winds, which have contributed to some of the region’s worst wildfires.
The winds form as the cold inland air flows toward Southern California and then speeds up and warms as it descends in a rush toward the coast.
Some of the most extreme gusts reported by the weather service topped 70 mph.
Drought leads to disaster designation
LAS VEGAS — Federal officials have designated portions of 11 drought-ridden western and central states as primary natural-disaster areas, highlighting the financial strain the lack of rain is likely to bring to farmers in those regions.
The announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture included counties in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Oklahoma and California.
The designation means eligible farmers can qualify for low-interest emergency loans from the department.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he and President Obama want to ensure that agriculture remains a bright spot in the nation’s economy.
Counties adjacent to those affected also are eligible for assistance.
While storms have dumped rain and snow in the East, droughts are persisting or intensifying in the West, according to officials connected with the U.S. Drought Monitor, an index on which the USDA’s declarations are based. A ridge of high pressure is to blame for keeping storms off the Pacific Coast and guiding them to the East.
“What we’re seeing meteorologically is a blocking pattern that is deflecting all the storms,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the Lincoln, Neb.-based National Drought Mitigation Center. “There really hasn’t been a lot of indication that this pattern is breaking down.”