GLENDORA, Calif. — 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 two-and-a-half 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.
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