By Louis Sahagun, Kate Mather and Soumya Karlamangla
5:00 PM PST, January 16, 2014
Firefighters battling the Colby fire burning near Glendora, northeast of Los Angeles, made headway Thursday afternoon, stopping the march of the fire toward hillside homes. Fire officials announced at their 4:30 p.m. briefing that the fire is 30% contained.
In all, 1,700 acres have burned — the same acreage as several hours earlier. Five homes have been destroyed and 17 additional structures were damaged.
“The forward spread of the fire has stopped,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief John Tripp said, adding that the hazard to the community is subsiding.
Fire officials said the weather was cooperating and strong afternoon winds did not materialize as feared. Three people, including two firefighters, suffered minor injuries in the blaze.
He said it appeared that firefighters finally had the upper hand.
“We’ve got good, solid containment around most of the neighborhoods,” Tripp said, adding that firefighters would remain in the neighborhoods throughout the night to watch for hot spots or flareups.
Although some mandatory evacuations will remain in place, Glendora Police Chief Tim Staab said most Glendora residents will be allowed to return to their homes at 6 p.m. Glendora Mountain Road will also reopen.
The men accused of accidentally sparking the fire could face federal charges because the blaze was believed to have been sparked on federal land, a police official said.
Staab told The Times that 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 that they also believed 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.
The three men arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting the fire were identified 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.”
Some evacuees gathered Thursday afternoon at Glendora High School, where the Red Cross had converted the gym into a disaster shelter.
From the campus, those displaced by the fire could see the mountains and the smoke plumes from the fire that burned their homes.
In the gym, six fire evacuees sat in folding chairs around a long, plastic table. Many were slouched over, exhausted, sipping coffee, Gatorade and water. To pass the time, they shared their stories of escape.
A plastic barrier divided the gym in two, and from the other side came the thundering noise of a basketball bouncing as high school practice was underway, but no one seemed to notice.
Alex Larsen was among them, with a wiry salt-and-pepper beard, a black Dodgers cap and a blue jacket.
"Everyone here has nothing, just the clothes on their back," Larson, 50, said.
About 4:30 a.m., Larsen said, he saw a small blaze on the hills behind the Singer mansion, where he lives. He watched a tree branch catch on fire, and then fall to the ground. He started gathering some belongings, but didn't think the fire would actually become dangerous.
But the police came about 6 a.m. to warn them about the fire, and then Larsen headed down the mountain in his van with the belongings he had gathered.
Larsen, an electronic musician, said losing what was left in his room was especially tough because he had spent years homeless, and this was his first real accumulation of belongings since he got off the streets in 1994. He had lived in Singer mansion for about four years.
"All my possessions are toast, burned toast," he said.
He said he was going to spend the night with a friend in Hollywood, and then figure out permanent arrangements.
Alex Mendoza, public information officer for the Red Cross, said the high school will be "open as long as there's an evacuation order."
David Fields, 25, awoke to police banging on the door of Singer mansion where he lives, about 6 a.m. alerting him to the fire.
He could see a fire burning on the hill behind his house. His mother was leaving for work from her house in east Glendora and saw a blaze that looked like it was near her son's house. She called him, and then drove up the hill to his house to help him pack.
"Fiery embers were landing on my car, the wind was blowing," she said. "It was a crazy scene."
By 6:30 a.m., the blaze had quickly come down the hill into their property and was burning in their backyard.
The two rushed down the mountain in their cars and Fields went to class at Baldwin Park Adult and Community Education, where he's a student.
He said he didn't know whether the part of the house where he lived would burn, but drove up there later in the day with his mother and saw all that remained of his room: a charred wall and archway. Fields said he was still in shock.
"It still hasn't hit me that I don't have a place to go," he said. "I'm just glad that I got out alive though, I guess. Kinda depressed about all of the stuff I lost."
He grabbed his wallet, some clothes and drove his car away from the fire. But he bought a 40-inch TV Wednesday that was mounted to the wall that is now ashes.
Fields said he will spend time with his roommates and then figure out where to stay.
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