With its picturesque vistas in the hillsides near Santa Clarita, the quiet and sprawling Sable Ranch has long been a backdrop for western films, reality television shows and music videos.
But this weekend, the popular 450-acre movie ranch off Sand Canyon Road — where shows such as “The A-Team,” and “24” and the 1993 movie “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” have been filmed — was the scene of real-life destruction, starring the Sand fire and a cast of employees who tried their best to save it from the flames.
Most of the property was destroyed. The Old West town set is an unrecognizable pile of ash. The hillsides are charred. The stables are gone. So is the water tower.
“It’s devastating,” said Kevin Whitney, the ranch manager who’s worked there for 13 years. “This was my second home.”
Fire crews on Wednesday continued to gain the upper hand on the massive Sand fire, which erupted Friday along the 14 Freeway near Sand Canyon Road and has been blamed for one man’s death and the destruction of at least 18 structures.
The fire had burned 38,346 acres in and around the Angeles National Forest as of Wednesday afternoon and was 40% contained.
Meanwhile, the Soberanes fire continued to rage along California’s scenic Central Coast north of Big Sur, killing a heavy equipment operator and triggering hiker rescues and the closure of state parks in the area. That blaze, which also started Friday, had burned 23,568 acres and was only 10% contained.
At Sable Ranch, the exhausted staff is still trying to process the devastation.
Derek Hunt, the owner, grew up on the ranch, which his grandfather, who owned a camera shop, purchased decades ago. For him, the Hollywood memories come easy.
Hunt smiles at mental images of actor Rodney Dangerfield driving a tractor across the property and actor Billy Bob Thornton walking through it. And he excitedly ticks off some of the many shows that have been filmed there: “Airwolf,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Bones,” “Wipeout.”
Hunt and his staff were working Friday when the Sand fire started nearby. They sprayed buildings down using their own water trucks, made some fire breaks and stayed up all night on fire watch, just to be safe.
But on Saturday, the fire exploded.
“Before you knew it, we were surrounded by fire,” Hunt said.
Hunt didn’t leave. His workers fought back the flames in the triple-digit heat even before the firefighters arrived. No one complained.
“Nobody wanted to leave because when you come to work at a place like this, outside in nature, around all this beautiful stuff, it grows on you,” he said. "Places like this are in your blood and in your heart and in your soul.”
Whitney, the ranch manager, was with his kids Saturday when the flames got close. He tried to get onto the property and was devastated when authorities stopped him, saying it was too dangerous.
“It was killing me,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep all Saturday night.”
When he finally got there Sunday, Whitney hopped into a water truck and rushed to a cabin in the rear of the property, trying to salvage it. As he sprayed it down, the blaze plowed toward him.
“You could hear it,” he said. “You could hear the trees crackling. You could feel the heat. But you couldn’t see the fire. So we pulled the fire hose out, ran it through the cabin, started squirting it and within 10 seconds … you could actually see the flames. It was just a wall coming down toward us.”
Whitney sped away as the fire hurtled down the hill. Hours later, he learned his efforts had worked. The cabin was spared.
Driving an all-terrain vehicle through the ranch Wednesday, Whitney passed a small wooden sign, shaped like an arrow, affixed to a light post that read: “Happiness.” It pointed toward the blackened hillsides.
Whitney clutched a big cup of iced coffee. He usually doesn’t drink the stuff — but having your workplace burn down will change things. He said he has tried to scrub the smell of smoke off his body, but he can't get rid of it.
Whitney’s tires kicked up ash as he drove. Antique cars and horseshoes were splashed with bright-pink fire retardant.
Whitney pointed to a spot on the charred ground and laughed: That's where the stuntman Steve-O strapped himself into a portable toilet that was catapulted through the air with a crane in the movie "Jackass 3D."
Whitney pulled up to what was once the set of the Fox reality series “Utopia,” where contestants tried to live off the land, with no electricity and no plumbing. There used to be a roughly 3,000-square-foot building where the contestants stayed — but on Wednesday, all that was left were nails poking through the ash on the ground. Whitney heard the whole thing burned down in about eight minutes.
Still, the staff is trying to stay positive. They managed to save houses on the property, including Hunt’s home and the adobe hacienda where the 1980 movie “Motel Hell” was filmed.
And the set for Netflix’s new competition series “Ultimate Beastmaster” — featuring a gigantic metal beast showing its teeth — survived. Even the flames, Hunt joked, couldn’t kill the beast, and curious sheriff’s deputies and firefighters have stopped in all week to pose for pictures with it.
“We’re going to make everything OK,” Hunt said. “We’re going to fix it and prepare it and get it all back together.”