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Wildfire near L.A.: Suspects could face federal charges

Colby FireWildfires

The men accused of accidentally sparking the Colby Fire that has burned at least 1,700 acres and injured four people near Glendora could face federal charges because the blaze was believed to have been sparked on federal land, a police official said.

Glendora Police Chief Tim Staab told The Times prosecutors were expected to decide Friday whether the case would be handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Nathan Judy, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said investigators were still trying to pinpoint the exact origin of the blaze, but confirmed they also believe it began on federal ground. Judy called the federal land border in the area “sketchy,” saying that was why officials were still working to determine the precise origin.

PHOTOS: Colby fire rages near Glendora 

Glendora police have arrested three people on suspicion of recklessly starting the fire: as Clifford Eugene Henry, 22, of Glendora; Jonathan Carl Jarrell, 23, of Irwindale; and Steven Robert Aguirre, 21, a Los Angeles transient.

Staab said the men started a fire near Colby Trail and Glendora Mountain Road early Thursday because they were cold. They were allegedly tossing paper into the fire when a gust of wind “just blew embers all over the place,” Staab said.

The chief said there was “absolutely no evidence that these three men started the fire on purpose.”

“They just didn’t show very much common sense this morning in starting this camp fire,” Staab said. “Especially when it’s breezy out? Especially when it’s the driest season on record? Please.”

At last count, the blaze burning into the Angeles National Forest had damaged at least two homes – including guest houses at the historic Singer Mansion – forced mandatory evacuations, closed schools and prompted several air quality warnings across the region.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized Thursday afternoon the use of federal funds to help California fight the fire. The agency said that when state officials requested the assistance, the blaze was threatening 500 homes – along with water supplies, secondary power lines and wilderness preserves – and had forced mandatory evacuations of about 7,000 people.

Four people had been injured, officials reported Thursday afternoon: two civilians and two firefighters. One of the civilians suffered what were described as minor burns, and one of the firefighters suffered a minor ankle injury. The nature of the injuries to the others were not immediately known.

Steep terrain and dry brush proved challenging for firefighters, but officials were especially wary of the winds expected to strengthen throughout the day.

Firefighters battling the Colby fire in Glendora were bracing for increasing temperatures and winds that are expected to increase through the night and into Friday morning.

The conditions add another level of difficulty for firefighters already negotiating red flag conditions.

Wind gusts atop Angeles National Forest ridges covered in flames could top out at 50 mph by 6 p.m. and last until 6 a.m. Friday, National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Sukup said.

Temperatures on Thursday were expected to peak in the mid-80s between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. before cooling overnight as humidity climbs into double digits, Sukup said. A wind advisory is in effect around Glendora until noon Friday, he said.

Although winds at high elevations are pushing the fire southwest, cooler air from the Pomona Valley is gusting in the opposite direction, Sukup said.

Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Scott Miller said Thursday afternoon that the fire appeared to be moving northwest, into canyons deeper within the Angeles National Forest and away from many area homes.

Steep terrain and dry brush are ongoing challenges in the firefight, Miller said. But as the afternoon wears on, he added, firefighters are also concerned about hot spots that may be sparked by strengthening winds.

Also complicating efforts are winding roads in the area. Miller said crews have had to scout roads before sending firefighters ahead, delaying their work.

At the far 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 in an effort to protect an avocado grove her family has owned for more than 50 years.

Whenever her cellphone rang, it was her husband, Ed Vasquez, a retired Los Angeles County firefighter, with updates on his struggle on the steep hill.

He called every few minutes. All of their conversations were desperate.

“He’s up there somewhere and it’s getting hairy,” she said, her eyes fixed on flames marching ever closer to the grove and homes owned by Vasquez family members at the foot of the hill immediately east of a Azusa Canyon.

“We are in a mandatory evacuation zone,” she said. “But we’re not leaving  until my husband gives the word to scram.”

Also on the hill was Vasquez’s son, Stefen Vasquez, 27, a Los Angeles County firefighter paramedic. It was Stefan’s day off, his mother said, but he was recalled after the fire broke out in the San Gabriel Mountains on Thursday morning.

A few blocks to the west, dozens of firetrucks and their personnel were gathering along San Gabriel Canyon Road in Azusa as part of a strategy to prevent the fire from entering Azusa Canyon and threatening hundreds of homes in a community known as Mountain Cove. Among them was Vasquez’s son, who was in constant contact with his father by telephone.

Mandatory evacuation areas included north of Sierra Boulevard West of Glendora Mountain Road and East of California 39.

The Colby fire started at 5:55 a.m. and quickly grew, but fire officials said they were well staffed and ready to fight it because of red flag alerts issued in response to the hot, dry weather and gusty winds.

When firefighters arrived, they immediately called a second alarm. The fire was inaccessible by engines and burning away from the road, said Jim Tomaselli of the U.S. Forest Service. 

About 700 fire personnel battled the blaze as well as more than a dozen aircraft.

 

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ruben.vives@latimes.com
louis.sahagun@latimes.com
joseph.serna@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ari Bloomekatz, Kate Mather, Samantha Schaefer and Jason Wells contributed to this report.

 

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