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Firefighters battle stubborn Southern California wildfire

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SIERRA MADRE, Calif. — A wildfire burned dangerously close to homes at the foot of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains early Monday, but firefighters stood their ground and turned back the flames.

The dramatic battle came on the third day of a 538-acre blaze that has forced at least 1,000 people from homes in and near Santa Anita Canyon in the foothill suburb of Sierra Madre, 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles. All schools in the community of about 11,000 residents were closed Monday.

Mayor Kurt Zimmerman was emotional as he recounted how the firefighters saved homes.

"Early this morning the flames had raced to within a couple feet of our homes in the canyon and those brave firefighters ... formed a perimeter with their bodies and their fire engines," he told a news conference. "It was a barricade of steel and water and human flesh and blood and they stopped the fire dead in its tracks."

The fire's overnight advance reduced containment from 30 percent to 21 percent, but by Monday evening little smoke wafted from the charred slopes. The burn area still was not expected to be fully surrounded by fire lines for four to seven days.

The fire broke out Saturday afternoon in a popular hiking area as unseasonable extreme heat and low humidity set in over Southern California. By late that night it was a bright orange line descending like slow-moving lava down the steep mountainside, triggering evacuations along the interface between the city and wilderness.

Helicopters and airplanes bombarded the fire with water and retardant drops Monday while firefighters labored in temperatures in the 90s for a third day. Nearly 700 firefighters were on the lines.

"It's a hot day and these are steep slopes," said Sierra Madre fire spokeswoman Barbara Croonquist. "And the fact that it's so near the city makes it hard."

Cooler weather was forecast for Tuesday and later in the week.

Four firefighters had minor injuries _ a bee sting, a strained knee, and two cases of heat exhaustion, authorities said. A small outbuilding was destroyed.

The blaze stranded 50 guests from a wedding party at the Chantry Flats ranger station on Saturday until they were airlifted out Sunday afternoon.

In San Diego County, firefighters fully contained a blaze that burned 100 acres of thick brush on the edge of Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve. The cause of the fire was being investigated, but it did not appear to be arson, fire spokesman Maurice Luque said.