Monica Santa Cruz said she was showering inside her mobile home Wednesday afternoon when she peered out her bathroom window and saw a wall of flames approaching.
She said she screamed and told her sister to start packing. Within minutes, Santa Cruz and her sister fled with what few belongings they could gather -- medicine, passports and T-shirts -- as smoke overcame their Santa Clarita Valley neighborhood.
"It was everywhere. You could barely see," said Santa Cruz, 33, as she sat in an emergency shelter at West Ranch High School, waiting to hear if their home was spared by the flames.
The sisters were among more than 1,000 residents forced to evacuate after a fast-moving fire tore through dry brush along the 5 Freeway near Calgrove Boulevard in Santa Clarita. The fire forced transit officials to briefly shut down the interstate, snarling traffic for hours.
When the fire was first reported about 1 p.m., it was about three acres in size. Winds over the mountains were gusting at 20 to 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service, and within hours the fire had burned through 350 acres.
Flames spread into Wildwood Canyon, an open space with steep ravines and dense foliage that's partly surrounded by large homes.
Several of those homes were threatened, and some residents said flames came within five feet of their houses. At least one structure caught fire: a garage at the home of Daniel Mortensen.
The 47-year-old attorney said he raced home from his office, located about one mile away, after his wife alerted him to the fire. He was still wearing his suit when he arrived.
"I tore all that off and ran up to the roof," Mortensen said. As he was hosing down the roof, he said, a tree nearby caught fire and ignited the garage.
Conceding to the blaze, he and his wife took their two children, two cats and dog to his mother-in-law's Valencia home, where they watched their garage burn on live TV.
Firefighters managed to douse the flames and stop the fire from spreading.
"They really put up a fight. They saved us," Mortensen said of the fire crews. "It was going to go."
More than 450 firefighters were deployed to the area, said Los Angeles County Fire Department Deputy Chief John Tripp. By nightfall, fire crews had the upper hand and residents were allowed back to their homes.
After Kristy Albrecq, 27, saw that her parents' home was spared, she sprinted toward her neighbors announcing the good news: "Our house is still there! Our house is still there!"
The fire's plume of smoke was visible from miles around, prompting air quality officials to issue an advisory. Forecasters said the smoke would drift to the north and northeast, away from the L.A. Basin. Around the Santa Clarita Valley, the fire left a coating of ash on cars, parking lots and lawns.
The fast-moving fire underscored the vulnerability of drought-ravaged foliage, officials said.
Yet resident Steve Colf, 71, brushed aside the fire as a fact of Southern California life.
"Fire is part of nature," he said. "You just have to prepare for it." The longtime resident of Newhall said he had cleared all the brush within 200 feet of structures on his horse ranch long before Wednesday's blaze.
As the canyons smoldered, Colf said he hoped that the fire had germinated the lupines. In the weeks ahead, he said, the seedlings would sprout and transform the scorched earth into a sea of purple blossoms.
Staff writers Matt Hamilton and Alice Walton contributed to this report.
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