Firefighters make progress controlling California blaze

LOS ANGELES Fri Jan 17, 2014 5:28pm EST

1 of 20. An air tanker makes waters drops as firefighters battle a fast-moving California wildfire, so-called the 'Colby Fire', in the hills of Glendora January 16, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Gene Blevins

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Firefighters battling a blaze sweeping across acres of dry brush for a second day in the foothills near Los Angeles gained significant ground on Friday, helped by diminishing winds that allowed most of the evacuated residents to return home.

The blaze, which officials said started in a campsite on Thursday morning, has blackened more than 1,700 acres of drought-parched chaparral, destroyed five homes and damaged 17 other structures.

After suppressing flare-ups overnight and making progress in efforts to encircle the flames, crews had managed to contain about 30 percent of the fire's perimeter, said Marc Peebles, a spokesman for the fire command.

He said the hot, dry Santa Ana winds fanning the flames on Thursday had subsided by early Friday in the immediate area, helping some 1,100 firefighters consolidate their gains against the blaze.

"The winds are behaving today and crews are making good progress," he said.

At its peak, the fire prompted some 3,500 residents in parts of Glendora and neighboring Azusa northeast of Los Angeles to vacate their homes on the order of authorities. Temporary shelters were set up at an American Legion hall, a community center and a high school.

By Friday morning, some 2,800 evacuees had been allowed to return home, said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Keith Mora. Three people, two of them firefighters, were reported to have suffered minor injuries.

The blaze broke out when three men were building a campfire and used paper to feed the flames, which were spread by high winds, officials have said. Bail was set at $500,000 for each of the men, who were jailed on Thursday in Glendora, California, on suspicion of recklessly starting the fire.

The three were identified as Clifford Eugene Henry Jr. 22, of Glendora; Jonathan Carl Jarrell, 23, of Irwindale; and Steven Robert Aguirre, 21, of Los Angeles. Police said Aguirre was homeless, but that the men were not living at the campsite.

Mora said a turning point came when firefighters kept the flames from jumping a highway near the San Gabriel Canyon. Having done that, crews were able to focus on tamping down hot spots and building containment lines around the edges, he said.

The blaze, which left much of the Los Angeles metro area covered with thick plumes of smoke on Thursday, roared to life a day before Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, capping the driest year on record for much of California.

The arrival of Santa Ana winds prompted the National Weather Service to post a "red flag" advisory for a fifth straight day on Friday for the greater Los Angeles area, warning of high risk of wildfires due to arid, blustery conditions. The red-flag warnings were expected to remain in effect through Saturday.

Santa Anas arise when a high-pressure area forms over Utah and Nevada, producing a strong, westerly air flow that heats up sharply as it blows through the desert mountains of southeastern California and descends into the basins below.

(Additional reporting by Karen Brooks; Editing by Gunna Dickson)

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