A fast-moving wildfire in the hills above Glendora burned at least 1,700 acres of withered brush and five homes Thursday, and sent a smoky pall over much of the Los Angeles Basin — the likely harbinger of a rare winter fire season sparked by the driest conditions on record.
Weather officials had been warning about the fire danger for months, capped by a January that had the windy, nosebleed feel of October.
The native chaparral that burns so easily in normal circumstances was parched and ready to combust.
The fire sent smoke and ash south and west toward the Pacific Ocean. People as far away as Huntington Beach and Santa Monica smelled the wood smoke and saw their shadows cast in an eerie red light.
Commuters on the 10 Freeway reported seeing the flames from as far away as West Covina, with cars caked in dust and ash 30 miles from the fire.
Winds were gusting to 30 mph Thursday morning and were projected to climb to 40 mph by Thursday night, said Scott Sukup of the National Weather Service. With relative humidity expected to remain in the single digits through Friday and temperatures forecast to hover in the 80s and 90s, he said, "it's not going to get any better" for firefighters.
The blaze was first reported about 5:30 a.m. Three men arrested later by police said it started with an illegal campfire they were using to keep warm in the pre-dawn chill. A gust of wind blew embers down the canyon.
About 550 firefighters and support staff, with two tanker planes and eight helicopters, scrambled to keep the flames from spreading into Glendora's northern neighborhoods or moving west into parts of Azusa.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered for all residents north of Sierra Madre Avenue and east of San Gabriel Canyon Road. By late evening, those orders had been lifted for many neighborhoods.
Brad Smith, 30, was dropping off a friend on Englewild Drive shortly after 5:30 a.m. when he saw the flickering glow about a quarter of a mile away. He rushed toward it and started going door to door to wake up residents.
Within minutes, the heat was upon him. "It got really scary," Smith said. "People were just getting their stuff out and really rushing with what little time they had."
Rita Abouchedid drove her three teenage children to their grandparents' house and then returned to their home on Kregmont Drive, which her husband built a decade ago.
"My husband didn't want to leave, we couldn't leave him alone," she said.
As she stood on her roof, other family and friends had returned to use hoses on the flames as they advanced into her backyard. Palm trees lining her street had caught fire and were raining burning debris, and electrical transformers were arcing. The smoke made it hard to see.
"It's like a dream, it isn't real," Abouchedid said.
Meteorologists say there is no end in sight to the high-pressure ridge over the Pacific that is keeping storms offshore and parching the state from Humboldt to San Diego.
Federal fire officials are well past being able to identify a "fire season," so a large blaze in January is no longer seen as an anomaly.
California's year-round potential for fire comes with a steep cost. CalFire and U.S. Forest Service officials maintain a system of hiring seasonal fire crews that are laid off as the traditional fire season fades. But when the winter fire outlook factors in the state's prolonged drought and super-dry fuels, fire bosses must make a calculation: weighing the expense of keeping crews on standby versus scrambling to find appropriate resources to throw at an unexpected winter fire.
Likewise, costly firefighting equipment such as helicopters and water-scooping planes are not usually kept on contract past the fall months. Thus, when a blaze is sparked at this time of year, agencies pay a premium to hire aircraft at a moment's notice.
A red flag warning was extended for the foothills and other parts of Los Angeles County through 3 p.m. Friday, said Sukup of the weather service.
A second brush fire started late Thursday morning near Pyramid Lake and burned two acres before being knocked down by crews by 12:30 p.m.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District warned that air quality was expected to quickly decline to unhealthful levels across the region and remain poor. Officials said residents from the San Gabriel Valley to the Pomona Valley, in particular, should avoid outdoor activities, and that the smoke and ash could affect people with lung and heart disease and asthma as far south as Long Beach.
Two firefighters and two residents suffered minor injuries.
Glendora Police Chief Tim Staab said the fire started near where Colby Trail meets Glendora Mountain Road, an area that is not a designated camping spot.
The three men were tossing pieces of paper onto the fire, Staab said, when a gust of wind "just blew embers all over the place."
"They got scared and ran," Staab told The Times. "Two ran in one direction, one ran in the other."
Glendora police Cpl. Nancy Miranda said she first spotted two of them when she was helping with evacuations on North Palm Drive. A resident pointed to them running down a wash alongside the road, apparently trying not to be seen.
When she stopped the disheveled pair, they said they had lost track of their friend. They were covered in ash and smelled like smoke, but denied starting the fire.
"I knew immediately that something was off," Miranda said.
She searched their backpacks and, finding marijuana and cigarettes, took them to the Glendora police headquarters.
Their friend was picked up by forest officials as he walked down Glendora Mountain Road, and police took him into custody.
Eventually one of them admitted accidentally starting the fire and was "apologetic," Staab said. The trio had been sitting around a campfire "trying to stay warm," he said, when a "gust of wind came up."
"There's absolutely no evidence that these three men started the fire on purpose," Staab said
The suspects — Clifford Eugene Henry, 22, of Glendora; Jonathan Carl Jarrell, 23, of Irwindale; and Steven Robert Aguirre, 21, a Los Angeles transient — were arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting a fire and were being held in lieu of $20,000 bail.
"They just didn't show very much common sense this morning in starting this campfire," Staab said. "Especially when it's breezy out? Especially when it's the driest season on record? Please."
At the western edge of the smoke and flames, Ana Vasquez stared up at a ridgeline trying to spot her husband who was spraying fire hoses and hacking at brush to protect an avocado grove her family has owned for more than 50 years.
He called every few minutes. Her tone was desperate.
"He's up there somewhere and it's getting hairy," she said.
A few blocks to the west, dozens of firetrucks and their personnel were gathering along San Gabriel Canyon Road in Azusa to prevent the blaze from entering Azusa Canyon and threatening hundreds of homes in a community known as Mountain Cove.
In the upper reaches of Glendora, Ron Galloway, 63, stared at the smoldering remains of a guesthouse at a historic mansion once owned by the Singer family, where he has lived for four years.
Spanish-style arches were all that remained in front of heaps of broken roof tiles and smoking lumber. Galloway's Toyota MR2 was burned to its frame, its wheel rims melted like mercury on the ground.
"I lost everything. How am I going to survive?" Galloway said.
The mansion was built in 1924 and later owned by the heirs of the Singer family, of the Singer sewing machine company.
When he saw the fire, Galloway got out with just his cellphone and the clothes he was wearing. His roommate, Rudy Rosas, 47, grabbed his Social Security card, birth certificate, two pairs of pants and two shirts and rode to the bottom of the hill on his bicycle. He watched the fire crackle across the hill as others joined him.
Palm trees rained embers down into the neighborhood.
When a plume of thick black smoke spiraled into the air, Galloway said he knew the building and all his possessions were gone.
At least 11 people will be displaced by the destruction of the Catholic retreat. In all, officials said 17 structures were damaged. By Thursday afternoon, firefighters said they had finally stopped the blaze's forward spread.
Times staff writers Louis Sahagun, Soumya Karlamangla, Julie Cart, Ari Bloomekatz, Jason Wells, Joseph Serna, Matt Stevens, Kate Mather, Patrick McGreevy, Samantha Schaefer and Richard Winton contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times