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California wildfire dies down as police hold 3 in custody

Santa Ana winds that fanned a campfire into a wildfire that destroyed five homes and threatened foothill neighborhoods east of Los Angeles relented Thursday afternoon, halting the blaze in its tracks, while police held three men in custody after they allegedly started the blaze.

The fire swept through 1,700 acres of brush in the San Gabriel Mountains early in the day but by nightfall it was no longer advancing and was 30 percent contained.

"The weather cooperated quite a bit today. We didn't get the wind ... that we thought," Los Angeles County fire Deputy Chief John 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. It wasn't clear how many remained evacuated. 

However, fire engines would remain to guard the area overnight, he added.

The National Weather Service said a red-flag warning of extreme fire danger would remain in effect into Friday evening because of low humidity and the chance of winds gusting to 30 mph in the foothills and canyons.

The wildfire, which erupted early Thursday, damaged 17 homes, garages, barns and other buildings, Tripp said.

At least 10 renters were left homeless when the fire destroyed rental units on the historic grounds of a retreat that once was the summer estate of the Singer sewing machine family. Statues of Jesus and Mary stood unharmed near the blackened ruins. However, the main, 1920s mansion was spared.

"It's really a miracle that our chapel, our main house is safe," owner Jeania Parayno said.

Alex Larsen, 50, rented a room at the estate. The musician had lived there for about four years.

"All my possessions are toast, burned toast," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Two firefighters had minor injuries and a woman trying to fight the blaze near her home suffered a minor burn, Tripp said.

Three men in their 20s, including a homeless man, were arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting the blaze by tossing paper into a campfire in the Angeles National Forest, just north of Glendora.

Those arrested were Clifford E. Henry Jr., 22, of Glendora; Jonathan C. Jarrell, 23, of Irwindale; and Steven R. Aguirre, 21, a homeless man from Los Angeles, MyFoxLA.com reported, citing Glendora police. They were each being held in lieu of $20,000 bond Thursday evening.

Glendora Chief Tim Staab said the men were trying to keep warm and the wildfire appears to have been an accident.

"One was very remorseful for starting this fire," he said.

The men could face either state or federal charges, depending on whether the campfire was on federal forest land, he added.

The Angeles National Forest was under "very high" fire danger restrictions, which bar campfires anywhere except in fire rings in designated campgrounds.

There are no designated campgrounds in the area where the fire began, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman L'Tanga Watson said.

The mountains rise thousands of feet above dense subdivisions crammed up against the scenic foothills. Large, expensive homes stand atop brush-choked canyons that offer sweeping views of the suburbs east of Los Angeles.

Whipped by Santa Ana winds, the fire quickly spread into neighborhoods where residents were awakened before dawn and ordered to leave.

Jennifer Riedel in Azusa was getting her children, ages 5 and 7, ready to evacuate.

"They're a little nervous, but I'm keeping calm for them," she said. "I've been loading the car up with important papers and getting the kids dressed. We'll just take some essentials and get going if we have to."

However, other homeowners choses to stay, despite firefighters' orders to get out. Some wore masks against the ash and smoke as they wet down their properties with garden hoses.

The last catastrophic fire in the San Gabriel Mountains broke out in 2009 and burned for months, blackening 250 square miles, killing two firefighters and destroying more than 200 structures, including 89 homes.

The flames could have abundant fuel to consume. Vegetation above Glendora had not burned since a 1968 fire that was followed by disastrous flooding in 1969.

Many homes are nestled in rugged canyons and ridges that made access difficult.

Glendora police went door to door ordering residents of the upscale city of 50,000 to leave. Citrus College and several other schools canceled classes.

More than 700 firefighters were on the scene, along with 70 engines and a fleet of helicopters and air tankers dropping water and retardant.

The smoke was visible from space in satellite photos. The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory and urged residents to avoid unnecessary outdoor activities in directly affected areas.

About 70 miles to the northwest, another fire burned one acre of tinder-dry chaparral near Pyramid Lake before it was contained. Authorities say the blaze began in a mobile home. No injuries were reported.

California is in a historically dry period, and winter has offered no relief.

Large parts of Southern California have been buffeted all week by the region's notorious Santa Ana winds, which have contributed to some of the region's worst wildfires.

The winds form as the cold inland air flows toward Southern California, then speeds up and warms as it descends in a rush toward the coast. Some of the most extreme gusts reported by the weather service topped 70 mph.

The Santa Anas typically begin in the fall and last through winter into spring. The winds also raise temperatures to summerlike levels. Many areas have enjoyed temperatures well into the 80s.

Click here to read more from MyFoxLA.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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