GLENDORA, California: Nearly 2,000 residents were evacuated and two homes burned in a wildfire that started early Thursday when three people tossed paper into a campfire in the dangerously dry foothills of Southern California's San Gabriel Mountains, authorities said.
Embers from the fire fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds quickly spread into neighborhoods below where residents were awakened in the pre-dawn darkness and ordered to evacuate.
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.
One resident suffered minor burns in the neighborhood abutting Angeles National Forest, just north of the San Gabriel Valley community of Glendora, according to Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby.
Between 1,700 and 2,000 residents were evacuated and the order included 880 homes in 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.
At least 2 ½ square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of dry brush were charred in the wilderness area about 25 miles (40 kilometers) 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.
The notorious Santa Anas, linked to the spread of Southern California's worst wildfires, picked up at daybreak. The extremely dry Santa Anas blow downslope and can push fires out of the mountains and into communities below. The area, which has been historically dry, has been buffeted by the winds which have raised temperatures past 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius). The Santa Anas typically begin in the fall and last through winter into spring. A wet winter reduces fire risk, but the whole state is experiencing historically dry conditions.
TV news helicopters spotted embers igniting palm trees in residential yards as firefighters with hoses beat back flames lapping at the edges of homes.
Homes are nestled in canyons and among rugged ridges that made access difficult.
Glendora police said officers went door to door ordering residents of the city of 50,000 to leave. Citrus College, located in the heart of Glendora, canceled classes for the day.
Several schools were closed. The Glendora Unified School District closed Goddard Middle School, which was being used as a fire department command post. District spokeswoman Michelle Hunter said 900 students attend the school, which is near the fire and within the evacuation area.
More than 700 firefighters were on the scene. The Los Angeles County Fire Department deployed seven engines and three helicopters to the fire, which was reported around 5:50 a.m. (PST) and grew rapidly. Officials added to the firefighting aircraft with a water-dropping Super Scooper plane.
The smoke spread across metropolitan Los Angeles to the coast and was visible from space in Weather Service satellite photos.