Extreme fire danger remains in Southern California as crews get a handle on fire

Last Updated Jan 17, 2014 11:23 AM EST

GLENDORA, Calif. --  Fire crews had a handle on a wildfire in the foothill suburbs northeast of Los Angeles on Friday, but 300 homes remain under a mandatory evacuation order.

Firefighters caught a break from the windy weather and made significant progress in the damaging wildfire that has kept thousands of people from their homes.

But the red flag warning of extreme fire danger has been extended through Saturday. And five houses in Glendora were earlier destroyed by the flames.

 Firefighters used kerosene and flare guns to start backfires, controlled burns that deprive the fire of fuel. Much of the brush here is thick and completely dry.

"We're still worried about the houses but we're able to perform some of these techniques to help bolster the line," said Los Angeles County Battalion Chief Patrick Errett, who is in charge of the back-fire operation.

Earlier in the day, scattered open flames chewed through brush along hillsides above communities abutting the San Gabriel Mountains as crews doused properties in the path of the fire.

All flare-ups occurred within the containment lines of the wildfire that swept through about 2 1/2 square miles of tinder-dry chaparral and destroyed five homes on Thursday, said Incident Commander Mike Wakowski at a morning news conference.

Crews turned their attention to the fire's north end, to keep flames from moving further into Angeles National Forest.

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

 A huge plume that spread across Los Angeles in the early stages of the fire dissipated but an acrid haze remained.

Tom Contreras with the U.S. Forest Service called conditions extreme.

"It seems like this is July rather than January and these conditions are extremely different than what we've seen in the past," Contreras said.

Those conditions come with a bigger backdrop of a serious statewide water shortage. 

There has been less than one inch of rain in Los Angeles in the last six months. On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency and urged residents to cut water use by 20 percent.

"We're facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago," Brown said.

It's not just California. Drought has caused parts of 11 states to be designated as natural disaster areas. Rainfall in Wichita Falls, Texas is more than 7 inches below normal. Lamar, Colo., is 5 inches below normal. And San Francisco is more than 17 inches below normal.

The state of emergency will allow California to request a broad emergency declaration from President Obama, expediting some water transfers, providing financial assistance and suspending some state and federal regulations.

"Fire season just didn't end this year," Los Angeles County fire Inspector Scott Miller said.

 "We're just bone-dry here, really from Texas to California, from Oregon to Colorado," Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, earlier told CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy.

Patzert said that what is known as "Pacific decadal oscillation" had warmed waters in the upper Pacific, creating a strong high pressure system that pushed the jet stream north. It is so persistent that meteorologists have nicknamed it "The Triple R" for ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure.

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. Approximately 2,000 Azusa residents remained evacuated from their homes, CBS Los Angeles reports.

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

Seventeen structures were damaged, including homes, garages, barns and other buildings, he 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.

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. They could face state or federal charges.

Glendora Police Cpl. Nancy Miranda spotted two of the men running from the flames.

"They reeked of smoke, and I asked them if they were coming from the fire, and they said they were camping up in the foothills and they woke up and saw the fire, got scared and ran," she told CBS News correspondent Carter Evans, adding that she didn't believe them. "They were both very nervous."

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

"This is just amazing that three guys would set a fire during breezy conditions in the driest year of record that we have here in Southern California," Staab told Evans Thursday. "They are going to go to state prison. It's not county jail. These are felonies, and a lot of property was damaged today. People were injured. They're going to go to prison."

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

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 chose to stay, despite firefighters' orders to get out. Some wore masks against the ash and smoke as they wetted 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.

Vegetation above Glendora, an upper-middle-class suburb of about 50,000 people, had not burned since a 1968 fire that was followed by disastrous flooding in 1969.