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Firefighters were chasing early-morning flare-ups Friday in a damaging wildfire that was largely tamed but was still keeping thousands of people from their homes in the suburbs northeast of Los Angeles.
Spots of open flames tore through brush along hillsides, raining embers and ash onto communities bordering the San Gabriel Mountains as crews doused properties in the path of the fire. Firefighters working overnight lit controlled backfires to cut down on fuel for the blaze.
Fire officials said Friday morning that aside from those few overnight flare-ups, crews were able to make good progress in tamping it out. Crews will continue to work on putting out any hotspots on Friday.
Los Angeles County Fire Chief John Tripp said at a news conference Thursday in Glendora that the fire's growth has been stopped at 1,700 acres. Five homes have been burned and 17 structures including some homes have been damaged, Tripp said.
Some 3,700 people from Glendora and Azusa evacuated at the height of the fire, county emergency officials said. Glendora residents were allowed to return home Thursday evening, but homes in Azusa remained under evacuation orders. More than 2,000 people remained evacuated, according to KABC-TV.
The fire is 30 percent contained. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, "a fire is contained when it is surrounded on all sides by some kind of boundary but is still burning and has the potential to jump a boundary line." Typical boundaries include a strip where vegetation has been removed to deny the fire fuel, or a river or a freeway too wide for a fire to jump.
The National Weather Service said a red-flag warning of extreme fire danger in effect much of the week will remain in place until Friday evening because of low humidity and the chance of the region's notorious Santa Ana winds gusting up to 30 mph.
The blaze started early Thursday when three people tossed paper into a campfire in the dangerously dry and windy foothills of Southern California's San Gabriel Mountains, authorities said.
Embers from the fire, helped by unusually dry conditions and fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds, quickly spread into neighborhoods below where residents were awakened in the pre-dawn darkness and ordered to leave.
The three suspects, all men in their 20s, were arrested on charges of recklessly starting the fire that spread smoke across the Los Angeles basin and cast an eerie cloud all the way to the coast.
Most of the evacuations occurred in the San Gabriel Valley community of Glendora and the neighboring foothill city of Azusa. Many residents, some wearing masks, used garden hoses to wet the brush around their houses, even as firefighters ordered them to leave.
"Don't waste any more time with the water. Time to go," a firefighter ordered.
One resident suffered minor burns in the neighborhood abutting Angeles National Forest, just north of Glendora, according to Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby.
More than 700 firefighters were on the scene, along with 70 engines and a fleet of helicopters and air tankers dropping water and retardant.
At least 2 1/2 square miles of dry brush were charred in the wilderness area about 25 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Police said the three suspects were detained near Colby Trail, where the fire was believed to have started. At least one was homeless, Glendora Police Chief Tim Staab said.
Because of the conditions, the national forest was under "very high" fire danger restrictions. Warnings were posted on numerous signs saying campfires anywhere except in campfire rings in designated campgrounds are prohibited. U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman L'Tanga Watson said there are no designated campgrounds where the fire began.
The notorious Santa Ana winds, linked to the spread of Southern California's worst wildfires, picked up at daybreak. The extremely dry winds blow downslope and can push fires out of the mountains and into communities below.
The winds typically begin in the fall and last through winter into spring. A wet winter reduces fire risk, but the whole state is experiencing historic dry conditions. California usually gets an average of 15 inches of rain a year, but last year was the driest on record, with the state only receiving 3.6 inches of rain. As climate change causes even drier weather, experts warn that wildfires will become more common.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press
Updated: 10:32 a.m. Jan. 17, 2014