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Wildfire ripped through like 'freight train,' destroying homes near Santa Clarita

Just a few weeks ago, Ted Kellum told his wife that he felt like they lived in paradise.

After relocating to the Santa Clarita area from Texas for his new job as a defense contractor at Raytheon, Kellum and his family settled into their home two years ago on Sand Canyon Road. It came with a pool and a striking view of the San Gabriel Mountains.

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But then, this weekend, Kellum, 55, watched as the area transformed into an inferno. Dark smoke choked the air and orange flames traced a ridge behind the home that he loves.

By Saturday afternoon, he started to worry about how quickly the Sand fire was moving. He called to give his wife an update.

"This is getting out of control," he told her. "We're leaving."

After packing up pictures, clothes and iPads -- as well as two dogs, a cat and a guinea pig -- the family headed to William S. Hart High School in Santa Clarita, where they spent the night in the gymnasium with no air conditioning. Early Sunday, they still didn't know much. Was their home among the 18 structures that had burned down? Was it the one that was damaged?

As the Kellums and hundreds of other families waited for answers, more than 1,600 firefighters battled the blaze, which has already blackened more than 22,000 acres and may have claimed at least one life.

"This is a very serious fire," Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said at a news conference Sunday. "When we tell people to evacuate … they need to evacuate."

As offshore winds whipped from the southwest, the flames moved northeast toward Soledad Canyon and Acton, where fire officials warned residents to prepare for evacuations.

Years of drought have created unprecedented conditions for fires to intensify and spread rapidly, fire officials said at Sunday's news conference.

They urged residents to be vigilant and asked them not to rely on past experience to predict fire behavior.

"We recognize that citizens have seen fires before. But these are not normal times," said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby. "You can never replace your life. Let the firefighters go in and try to save your property."

Most of the 18 structures that were destroyed were in the 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.

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"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.

The winding, two-lane canyon roads in the area got clogged over the weekend, Tripp said, as residents tried to evacuate with their horses while fire engines rushed into neighborhoods where 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 probably claimed 20 to 50 acres in a normal year, 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."

Working through what one official described Sunday as "very, very hazardous" conditions, including 97-degree heat, firefighters attacked the flames using fixed-wing aircraft and water-dropping helicopters. Still, the blaze remained only 10% contained.

As Capt. Roosevelt Johnson of the Santa Clarita Sheriff's Station drove through Sand Canyon on Sunday afternoon, he pointed at zones that had been threatened Saturday and seemed safe early Sunday before again falling into the danger zone.

Firefighters with shovels gathered on front lawns to protect houses. Horses stood in a pasture even as smoke billowed behind them and a helicopter dropped fire retardant. On a hilltop above North Iron Canyon Road, a ruined house still smoldered.

"We thought we'd be able to allow people to go back into the area, but things change so quickly," Johnson said.

For Dan O'Connell, 65, who had planned to return home Sunday before learning permission to return had been rescinded, the wait meant more time to reflect.

O'Connell, who moved to the area four years ago and refers to it as "God's country," said he had always wondered what he would take with him if he had to suddenly evacuate.

On Saturday, he found out. As he watched flames come dangerously close to his Sand Canyon house, he hurriedly packed — a few changes of clothes, his cellphone, its charger and his laptop.

The evacuation put things into perspective, he said.

"I have a lot of possessions. It would be a bit of renewal to move ahead without them," he said. "I would have the strength to deal with that."

By Sunday evening, the evacuation zone had extended to include parts of Agua Dulce and Acton, where people posted pictures of the smoke-filled sky. The smoke had turned it a hue of pink-orange.

Smoke and ash fanned out for miles and the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued an alert Sunday for unhealthy air quality in parts of the Santa Clarita Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains, urging children and anybody with heart or respiratory disease to stay inside.

As a precaution, the 14 Freeway was also temporarily closed in both directions in the Santa Clarita Valley late Sunday.

Metrolink also announced it had shut down tracks from Vincent Grade/Acton, Palmdale and Lancaster stations as a result of the brush fire. There will be no service Monday to or from the stations, and no alternative transportation will be provided.

At a Denny's near the fire, residents who had evacuated swapped stories about the blaze.

There was a woman whose husband had gone on a walk Sunday morning and seen the charred carcass of a horse and a man who struggled for descriptions -- he settled on saying it smelled "worse than campfire" and looked "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.

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"All we can do now," he said, "is wait."

Back at William S. Hart High School, Kellum and his family continued their wait. It was now 2:30 p.m. -- almost exactly 24 hours since they had evacuated. His three youngest children -- 8, 10, 12 -- played with iPads. Kellum and his wife perched on the edge of their cots, exasperated.

Then, his wife's phone rang. It was her eldest son, who had managed to drive to check on their home.

When Kellum heard the news, he raised his hands in the air and shouted.

"The house is OK!"

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UPDATES:

8:03 p.m.: This article was updated with information regarding Metrolink closures.

This article was originally published at 7:25 p.m.

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