There hung the sun, brazenly aglow in red. The sky around it, tinted a dusty rose. In the stifling air, ashes fluttered like snowflakes.
The effects of the Sand fire over the last few days have cast an ominous yet picturesque pall across the Los Angeles Basin, the sun and the moon eliciting comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Eye of Sauron” and apocalyptic films.
But up in the Santa Clarita Valley, the largest blaze in Los Angeles County this year was no photo op. Raging in the steep, rugged mountains and charring more than 35,000 acres, the Sand fire plowed through homes and sent thousands fleeing as it swept through a landscape of desiccated fuel. Explosive and swift, it melted cars, downed power lines and left the air thick with smoke.
“This is a big animal,” said Mike Wakoski, a spokesman for the multi-agency wildfire effort made up of nearly 3,000 firefighters. Wakoski warned that the fire was scorching an average of 10,000 football fields a day and that containment would be slow.
When the massive blaze erupted Friday along the 14 Freeway at Sand Canyon, 30- to 50-mph winds fanned the flames on hillsides carpeted with tinder-like chaparral, pushing them into the Angeles National Forest.
As water-dropping helicopters worked overnight, the firefight got a significant boost Monday, with the number of firefighters nearly doubling from 1,600. At only 10% contained, however, the blaze has shocked seasoned officials who say the speed of the Sand fire has never before been seen in the area.
"It's burning so quickly and so rapidly that our firefighters are getting in and doing a lot of great work, but to get in and do some of that stuff safely is very difficult," said Justin Correll, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.
A single death has been reported – a man’s body was found Saturday inside a burned car parked in a driveway. The flames were so hot on the day of the discovery that investigators had to leave and return hours later, said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Roosevelt Johnson.
At least 18 structures have been destroyed and one damaged in the Angeles National Forest near the Bear Divide and Sand Canyon areas, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Bruce Sanborn and Suzi Fox learned they had lost the house they shared on Little Tujunga Canyon Road after seeing its scorched shell on the Saturday news.
The couple had evacuated to a high school in Santa Clarita the night before. During a trip to a store, Sanborn saw images of their burned property flash across a television.
“I was just sitting there stunned," Sanborn, 55, said. “Up to that point, in the back of my mind, we were still going home.”
Two firefighters assigned to the Sand fire who resided at a forest service facility known as the Bear Divide Ranger Station also had their homes destroyed. Nestled deep in the Angeles National Forest, the facility’s location is considered an ideal spot for making initial attacks on fires.
For one of the firefighters, the loss felt familiar. An earlier home of his had been ravaged by the 2009 Station fire.
Still, officials said they believed crews had saved thousands of homes. On Monday evening, most of the 20,000 people who had been evacuated were told they could return home.
Years of severe drought left the valley primed for a fast-moving fire that was fed by parched vegetation, driven by winds and intensified by high temperatures and low humidity. The fire-friendly conditions don’t bode well for the remainder of the season.
“We’re now finding that fire season is not just a particular time of the year," Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said. “It's basically all year.”
Antonovich said Monday that the county leases a water-dropping aircraft known as a "super scooper” from Canada, but it is not scheduled to arrive until next month. He said the board hopes to renegotiate that contract and review its financing plan for future fires.
As air quality in smoke-filled areas approached an unhealthful level, air quality officials warned residents to avoid vigorous outdoor and indoor activities.
Meanwhile, firefighters struggled with low visibility and fast-moving winds that sent flames in multiple directions.
“We had a ferocious firefight yesterday,” L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said Monday.
He added that some crews have been working three days straight. At one point, a drone sighting delayed their efforts. Aircraft are grounded when a drone is spotted above a wildfire. Those caught flying private aircraft or drones could face criminal charges, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Among firefighters’ duties is persuading residents to flee quickly, even if it means leaving animals and pets behind.
After Chris Pease heard about mandatory evacuations Saturday, she packed her three pygmy goats into a carrier. A friend came and helped her hook up the horse trailer, but she was unable to get her horse, Abby, inside.
"It was the most frightening thing,” Pease, 66, said. “The flames were leaping up in some areas 50 feet in the air, 100 feet in the air. It was coming running down the hill, just a big, red glow, almost like lava."
A firefighter urged her to leave the area immediately. He said they would do their best to save the animals.
"But I looked on his face and I saw it," Pease said. "I knew."
She left behind her birds, goats and Abby.
Animal rescuers later attempted to lift Abby with a tractor. Finally, a veterinarian called to say he could give Abby fluids and try again to get the horse to move.
"What if you can't get her up?" Pease asked. "She's going to lay there and burn to death?"
Pease then made a painful decision. She requested that Abby be put down. Later she learned her home had burned.
Others were dealt a luckier hand.
Mel Bright had been at church Sunday when her husband called to tell her she had better hurry back to their home along Soledad Canyon Road.
Under a red-orange sky, the two began watering the property that also housed their market, Rio Groceries. Suddenly propane tanks began exploding and the air muddied with smoke. A firefighter ran up. “You have to go! It’s coming!”
But the couple refused to leave their livelihood, choosing to wait out the flames from a fire truck.
When things cleared, the earth was scorched and the surrounding area looked “like a war zone.”
The Brights’ home and business, however, remained unscathed.
Veronica Rocha, Sarah Parvini, Matt Hamilton and Corina Knoll also contributed to this report.
7:00 p.m.: This article was updated throughout.
11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with information about affected residents.
11:05 a.m.: This article was updated throughout.
9:55 a.m.: This article was updated with information about air quality.
9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about residents affected by the fire.
This article was originally published at 7:30 a.m.