GLENDORA, CA - Campfire embers fanned by gusty winds blew up Thursday into a fast-moving wildfire that forced nearly 2,000 people from their homes in the dangerously dry foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and threatened some densely populated suburbs of Los Angeles.
The blaze draped smoke across the LA basin all the way to the coast and rained ash on Glendora.
"We're underneath a giant cloud of smoke," said Jonathan Lambert, general manager of Classic Coffee. "It's throwing quite the eerie shadow."
Three men in their 20s were arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting the blaze by tossing paper into a campfire in the Angeles National Forest, just north of Glendora. The forest was under "very high" fire danger restrictions, which bar campfires anywhere except in fire rings in designated campgrounds.
There are no designated campgrounds where the fire began, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman L'Tanga Watson said.
By late afternoon, the flames had charred at least 2 1/2 square miles of dry brush in a wilderness area and destroyed two homes.
At least 10 renters were left homeless when the fire destroyed two guest 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.
"It's really a miracle that our chapel, our main house is safe," owner Jeania Parayno 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."
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 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.
TV news helicopters spotted embers igniting palm trees in yards as firefighters with hoses beat back flames lapping at the edges of homes. Many homes are nestled in rugged canyons and ridges that made access difficult.
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.
Between 1,700 and 2,000 people were evacuated from Glendora and neighboring Azusa. Some homeowners wore masks as they used garden hoses to wet the brush around their houses even as firefighters ordered them to leave.
A man was photographed on the roof of a home talking on a cellphone as he surveyed the smoke-filled sky.
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.
About 70 miles to the northwest, another fire burned at least one acre of tinder-dry chaparral near Pyramid Lake. As many as 115 firefighters battled those flames and water-dropping helicopters were diverted from the fire in Glendora. The cause was under investigation, authorities said.
California is in a historically dry period, and winter has offered no relief.
The National Weather Service said a red-flag warning of extreme fire danger would remain in effect into Friday evening because of low humidity and the chance of winds gusting to 30 mph in the foothills and canyons. The winds were expected to peak Thursday night and ease off late Friday.
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.
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, 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.
The Santa Anas typically begin in the fall and last through winter into spring. The winds also raise temperatures to summerlike levels. Many areas have enjoyed temperatures well into the 80s.