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updated: 1/17/2014 6:11 PM

Crews make progress on destructive California fire

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  • A truck clears away rocks along San Gabriel Canyon Road as firefighters continue Friday to battle the Colby Fire.

    A truck clears away rocks along San Gabriel Canyon Road as firefighters continue Friday to battle the Colby Fire.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

GLENDORA, Calif. -- A destructive wildfire above foothill suburbs northeast of Los Angeles was reduced to smoke and scattered flames Friday, but the charred landscape remained too dangerous for 2,000 people to return to their homes.

Flare-ups occurred within the 2 1/2-square-mile burn area but none escaped the perimeter, said Mike Wakowski, commander of the multi-agency firefighting force. Containment was estimated at 30 percent.

"Things are progressing nicely," Wakowski said. "It's looking pretty good around the structures."

The fire erupted before 6 a.m. Thursday in the Angeles National Forest when Santa Ana winds hit a campfire that authorities say was recklessly set by three men. Gusts quickly spread flames from the San Gabriel Mountains into the city of Glendora, forcing evacuations there and in neighboring Azusa.

Five homes were destroyed and 17 other houses, garages and other structures were damaged, according to early assessments.

Some 3,700 people from Glendora and Azusa were ordered to leave their homes at the height of the fire. Glendora residents were allowed back Thursday evening, but up to 850 homes in Azusa remained under evacuation orders Friday.

Azusa police Lt. Paul Dennis said after a drive into the foothills that it was too dangerous to travel along the highway that leads to the houses because of debris falling from a scorched mountainside and because there were still flames showing.

"I could feel and see rocks bouncing off the side of my car," he said.

Local schools kept children indoors due to poor air quality as an acrid haze emanated from the burn area.

The state is in a period of extended dry weather compounded in Southern California by repeated periods of the regional Santa Anas, dry and powerful winds that blow from the interior toward the coast, pushing back the normal flow of moist ocean air and raising temperatures to summerlike levels.

Red-flag warnings of critical danger due to the combination of winds, extremely low humidity and extraordinarily dry vegetation were repeatedly extended during the week. The National Weather Service said some warnings would expire Friday evening but others would remain for mountain areas until 6 p.m. Saturday.

"The conditions are still extreme out there," said Tom Contreras, supervisor of the Angeles National Forest.

The dry conditions statewide led Gov. Jerry Brown to formally declare a drought Friday in order to seek a range of federal assistance.

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