California fights wildfire, expects more as drought emergency declared

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Story highlights

NEW: Some in Azusa can return home, other wildfire evacuees cannot, police say

State faces perhaps worst drought since records began 100 years ago

Governor asks residents and businesses for voluntary 20% conservation

"This could be a giant fire year" for California, CNN's Chad Myers says

Los Angeles CNN  — 

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday declared a drought emergency for the state, saying it is facing “perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records (began) about 100 years ago.”

The governor’s announcement, made in San Francisco, came as a wildfire burned Friday with only 30% containment in 1,700 acres of foothills of Los Angeles County near Glendora. An illegal campfire apparently ignited the wildfire, and fire officials cited drought conditions as contributing to the blaze.

In his declaration, the governor called for voluntary “20% conservation of our water use” statewide.

“It’s important to wake all Californians to the serious matter of the drought and lack of rain,” Brown told reporters. “We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation that people should pause and reflect on how dependent we are on the rain, nature and one other.

“This is an effort to call for arms,” he continued. “That’s the point of the declaration.”

Brown said he would set into motion an initiative that would make water transfers easier between regions in the state.

The snowpack in California’s mountains is at 20% of normal levels. The state’s largest water reservoirs are below record lows, and the major waterways, including the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers, flow with “significantly reduced” water.

Since 2011, extremely dry conditions have parched the state.

Under the proclamation, Brown directed officials to take “all necessary actions” to address the drought, including assisting farmers and communities with water shortages. He directed state agencies to use less water and hire more firefighters.

Ninety percent of California is in a severe drought, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said. “This could be a giant fire year coming up,” Myers added.

Meanwhile, about 800 firefighting personnel brought a Los Angeles-area wildfire under some control Friday, with 30% containment – an improvement over 0% a day earlier.

“I’ve seen the sky turn gray from smoke before during fires here in Los Angeles, but this red sun was more eery than others,” said CNN iReporter Corinne Shor from about a 20-minute drive away. “I could also smell the fire and my eyes started to sting.”

About 3,600 people at one point were ordered to evacuate, though that number had fallen to about 1,600 as of late Thursday night, according to Angeles National Forest’s update on the Incident Information System’s website.

The number of evacuees fell even further Friday, when police in the inland Southern California city of Azusa announced that select residents could return to their homes at 4 p.m. (7 p.m. ET). Residents of Mountain Cove in that city, however, were not being let back in due to continued “concern for the roadway and homes in that area.”

Meanwhile, a red flag warning was extended to Friday because of anticipated warm, dry breezes called Santa Ana winds, InciWeb said.

The blaze began before dawn Thursday and allegedly originated with three men camping in the foothills near Glendora, authorities said. The campers were tossing paper into a campfire, and a gust of wind spread embers, authorities said.

The three men, all in their early 20s, were arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting a fire, said Police Chief Tim Staab of Glendora. One man is from Glendora and another is from Irwindale, he said. The third man’s home was not known. Bail was set Thursday at $20,000 for each.

“The way it’s told to us is that all three of them were together at the time, sitting around this campfire,” he said. “Breeze kicked up, and that’s what caused this fire.

“It’s not a camping area, but people do camp up in the hills above Glendora,” Staab said.

The arrests were made after authorities received a call that at least two people were suspiciously walking away from the fire, the chief said.

The three men arrested were identified as Jonathan Carl Jerrell, 23; Clifford Eugene Henry Jr., 22; and Steven Robert Aguirre, 21, police said. They and their attorneys couldn’t be reached for comment.

The wildfire, named the Colby Fire, destroyed two homes and injured one person Thursday morning, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

The injured civilian suffered minor burns, Osby told reporters.

“We predicted that this is going to be an intense fire season because this is the third year of an ongoing drought,” he said.

There hasn’t been a fire in Glendora’s foothills since 1968, so the area has lots of brush and other fuel for a wildfire, authorities said.

CNN’s Jason Hanna, Sonya Hamasaki and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.