Firefighters were taking advantage of favorable wind conditions Thursday night as they continued to battle a wildfire that had scorched at least 1,700 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains above Azusa and Glendora.
Winds along Sierra Madre Boulevard, where neighborhoods were threatened earlier in the day by the Colby fire, had "pretty much died down," said Nathan Judy, spokesman for the Angeles National Forest.
He said there were some wind gusts to the west along California 39 in the San Gabriel Canyon, where crews on the ground conducted a backfire operation to burn brush ahead of advancing flames. The canyon, he said, "is a wind funnel. It's typical."
Water-dropping helicopters were ready to conduct nighttime operations but they had not been needed, Judy said.
More than 700 firefighters from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies battled the blaze, which apparently was sparked by an illegal campfire and was 30% contained Thursday night. The fire broke out early Thursday along Glendora Mountain Road by the Colby truck trail.
The blaze was initially fanned by strong Santa Ana winds. It destroyed five homes and damaged 17 outbuildings and other structures, fire officials said. One resident and two firefighters were injured.
Glendora residents who live north of Sierra Madre Boulevard bounded by Yucca Drive on the west and Glendora Mountain Road on the east were being allowed back into their homes Thursday evening, police said. Neighborhoods in Azusa west of Yucca Drive and north of Sierra Madre to California 39 were still under mandatory evacuation orders.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it had hundreds of deputies ready to help evacuate residents in Duarte and Bradbury, west of the fire, should winds shift and push the blaze toward those areas.
Earlier Thursday, three men were arrested in connection with starting the blaze. They were identified by police as Clifford Eugene Henry, 22, of Glendora; Jonathan Carl Jarrell, 23, of Irwindale; and Steven Robert Aguirre, 21, a Los Angeles transient. They are being held at the Glendora city jail in lieu of $20,000 bail.
The men were hanging out near where the Colby trail meets Glendora Mountain Road — an area that is not a designated camping spot — when they started a campfire to try to stay warm, Glendora Police Chief Tim Staab said.
The 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."
The men who took off together were eventually spotted by a resident, who flagged down Glendora Police Cpl. Nancy Miranda. Miranda was helping with evacuations along North Palm Drive when she was alerted to the men running in a wash alongside the road.
When she stopped the men, Miranda said, they said they were running because they were scared of the flames.
When Miranda asked the men if they had anything to do with the blaze about three miles away, they denied it, she said. But the men were disheveled — out of breath, covered in ash and smelling of smoke.
"I knew immediately that something was off," she said.
Miranda quickly searched their backpacks, finding marijuana and cigarettes. She took them to the Glendora Police Department, she said, with no sign of their missing friend.
That man, Staab said, was actually walking down Glendora Mountain Road when a U.S. Forest Service employee stopped and offered him a ride "because he was in a dangerous area."
"They brought him to us. We said, 'Hey, what were you doing up there?' " Staab said. "We learned he was one of the three."