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'In Santa Clarita, this is how we weed whack': Crews battle 870-acre Placerita fire amid heat and wind gusts

Crews battling a wildfire in Santa Clarita faced red flag conditions Monday as temperatures climbed into the triple digits, humidity dropped and winds gusted toward homes and businesses as fast as 30 mph, officials said.

"Conditions are right for a fire to spread," said National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Fisher. "After that wetter than normal winter we had, we have extra grasses growing and now those grasses have pretty much dried out."

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Temperatures across Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley were forecast to reach 105 degrees Monday, while overnight, an onshore flow was expected to move in and begin cooling the region.

Before that cooling arrived, however, more than 400 firefighters battled the Placerita fire south of the 14 Freeway near Placerita Canyon Road, under the sweltering sun Monday.

The fire chewed through an estimated 870 acres and was 57% contained by Monday afternoon, officials said. It knocked out power and triggered mandatory evacuations for dozens of residents Sunday night.

The fire started Sunday afternoon when a motorist drove her car into a tree, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The blaze jumped the freeway and sent up a towering plume of gray smoke that was visible for miles.

The driver of the crashed vehicle was taken to a hospital with minor injuries, said Joey Marrone, a spokesman with the Fire Department.

A firefighter injured in the blaze was also hospitalized, Marrone said.

Laura Amara, a 48-year-old secretary, was hosting a baby shower at her house on Running Horse Road when the fire began.

"It started with my girlfriend having me come to the backyard where she saw a little puff of flames come up and I saw this bigger ball of fire all of a sudden kind of explode," she told a reporter on Monday.

Amara went back and told her 40 guests the news. "Um, we're all leaving," she said.

"I was worried about my house but I've been through this many times," she said. "You live in Southern California, you live in dry conditions, just like earthquakes, you get fire too. But when it burns, I want everyone out the house and to be safe, so that's my concern. Especially with a very pregnant daughter, it was just like 'go go go' and our blood pressures were skyrocketing."

At Golden Oak Ranch, an 890-acre filming location constructed by Disney and ABC studios, the fire burned a structure that had been used as a prop house, said L.A. County Sheriff's Department spokesman Christopher Craft.

U.S. Forest Service firefighters stopped the blaze from burning other structures in the faux business district and suburban street used for filming movies and television shows.

Near another flank of the fire, an NBC Los Angeles news van suddenly caught fire while a photographer was outside the vehicle. The photographer was unharmed, and the news station issued a statement saying the fire in the van was unrelated to the Placerita fire.

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The 14 Freeway had been closed on both sides, creating long traffic pileups in both directions. It was reopened by Sunday evening.

On Monday, Running Horse Road resident Mark McCloud, 56, said he and his neighbors are used to dealing with seasonal fires.

"In Santa Clarita, this is how we weed whack," he joked. "We just let the fire do it."

Despite being cautioned to evacuate during the height of the fire, McCloud chose to stick around to help family and neighbors protect their houses.

"We have four houses, my relatives and myself," he said. "My mother lives down the street and my mother-in-law lives at the top of the street. So one thing we did is all the houses have roof sprinklers."

On Sunday, after smelling smoke, McCloud said he headed up to his mother-in-law's house.

"When we got up there, we took the hoses and the shovels and just started working, putting out the fires," McCloud said. That's when he saw the next-door neighbor's home start to catch fire.

"He had a gazebo and a Jacuzzi and it caught on fire, his fence, everything was burning back there and then his house started to catch fire, so we just hit it with the hoses, and buckets because the hose only reaches so far, and we got all that out," McCloud said. "And this is all before the fire department got here."

The next-door neighbor, Dennis Brazzil, 67, said he welcomed the help.

"My wife and I moved here in '96. And we have a 26-year-old daughter who's in Kentucky. And who was frantic trying to get ahold of me. But I had my phone in my pocket and it got soaking wet because I was wetting myself with all the buckets of water and the hose."

All in all, Brazzil said he likes living in Santa Clarita despite the danger.

"It's worth the agony of the fire," he said. "We've been here 20 years and fires happen almost [every] six, seven years so we've been through a few of them already."

Even though wind gusts kicked up small hot spots throughout the day Monday and pushed some flames near a Target store parking lot, McCloud said he and his neighbors were breathing easier than they were a day earlier.

"We're pretty much safe now," McCloud said. "And we'll probably be safe for a number of years now."

As the fire spread, the Gentle Barn, an educational nonprofit in Santa Clarita, tweeted a call for neighbors with trucks and trailers to help evacuate horses and other livestock.

In emergency situations, people often stay in their homes because they're afraid of what might happen to their animals, said Ellie Laks, the organization's founder.

By the time the winds had died down and firefighters were beginning to contain the fire, no one had taken the volunteers' offer.

"That's a good fire," Laks said. "Hopefully the rest of the fire season will be like that."

Temperatures across Southern California, including the area around Santa Clarita, are expected to drop 10 degrees by Tuesday and another 10 degrees by Wednesday, the National Weather Service said.

Staff writers Joy Resmovits and Maya Lau contributed to this report.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

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2:35 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from area residents.

9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with the weather forecast.

This article was originally published at 6:55 a.m.

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