Wildfire ripped through like ‘freight train,’ destroying homes in Santa Clarita Valley

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The brush fire raging in the rugged mountains of the Santa Clarita Valley grew by more than 10,000 acres on Sunday, scorching an estimated 33,172 acres by the late evening as the blaze continued to threaten hundreds of homes while firefighters battled to keep flames from spreading, authorities said.

Fueled by 20-mph winds and hillsides carpeted with tinder-like chaparral, the wildfire was burning in hills toward Acton by late Sunday afternoon. Hundreds of residents were ordered to evacuate.

Mandatory evacuations were still in place Sunday for about 1,500 residents in parts of Sand and Placerita canyons, as well as for others along Little Tujunga Canyon Road.

So far, at least 18 structures have been destroyed and one damaged in the Bear Divide and Sand Canyon areas, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. One fatality has been reported, but it is not yet clear if it is fire-related.

The 14 Freeway in the Santa Clarita Valley was closed in both directions late Sunday afternoon but was later reopened.

At least one drone was spotted over the fire near the Bear Divide area, about 2,000 feet above Lake View Terrace, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The sighting of a drone over a wildfire typically prompts officials to ground aircraft for 30 minutes. The Forest Service said that those caught flying private aircraft or drones could face criminal charges.

Assisted by fixed-wing aircraft and water-dropping helicopters, more than 1,600 firefighters continued through the day to battle to get ahead of the blaze. But the fire remains only 10% contained.

Decades without a major fire and years of drought left the valley primed for a fast-moving fire that was fueled by “excessive heat, low humidity, extreme dry fuels that have not burned for several decades,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said during a news conference Saturday.

“Five years ago, if we had a similar fire, we would have probably caught [it] at the ridge,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl L. Osby said at the news conference.

Most of the structures that were destroyed were in the Angeles National Forest, near Little Tujunga Canyon Road and Bear Divide, said John Tripp, a Los Angeles County deputy fire chief.

The fire ripped through the hills “like a freight train” on Saturday, Tripp said.

“We’ve never seen a fire come into Sand Canyon like that,” Tripp said. “All the experience we’ve had with fires is out the window.”

During a sweep of the burn area Saturday night, firefighters found a man’s body. Although the Sheriff’s Department is still investigating, officials have said that the body was found inside a burned car parked in a driveway.

“There is no indication,” sheriff’s officials said in a statement, “that the death was a criminal event.”

In the last decade or so, Tripp said there have been three major fires in Sand Canyon, including the Station fire, which burned more than 200 homes and claimed the lives of two L.A. County firefighters in 2009.

Even still, some of the area’s vegetation — brittle brush and chaparral — has not burned in some 60 years, Tripp said, fueling this weekend’s fire whose flames whipped 20 to 50 feet high and seemed to jump ahead by a quarter-mile at a time.

The winding, two-lane canyon roads in the area got clogged over the weekend, Tripp said, as residents trying to evacuate with their horses passed by fire engines rushing into neighborhoods with homes whose backyards had filled with flames.

The Sand fire, which is named for Sand Canyon, is the latest blaze to ravage L.A. County this year.

Earlier this season, Tripp said, blazes in Calabasas, Duarte and Stevenson Ranch, which would have likely claimed 20 to 50 acres in a normal year, have spread exponentially, burning thousands of acres. Tripp said he can’t help but worry about what the remainder of the season will bring.

“We are in July,” he said. “We’ve never had four major fires within six weeks in June and July.”

At a Denny’s in the Sand Canyon area early Sunday, residents swapped stories about the blaze.

A woman said her husband had seen a burned horse carcass during his morning walk, and a man described the scene as looking like Armageddon.

Nearby, Ascension Perez Salorio paced the restaurant, hoping for answers. He turned to a woman and asked, “Did my home burn down?”

Nobody knew.

Since evacuating his home on Little Tujunga Canyon Road late Friday, Salorio said, he hasn’t gotten any updates.

“All we can do now,” he said, “is wait.”

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