Firefighters battle fast-spreading Santa Clarita fire

Nearly 3,000 firefighters are working to battle a quickly spreading wildfire that has forced hundreds of residents north of Los Angeles to flee their homes. 

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP
Firefighters keep watch near a wildfire near Placenta Canyon Road in Santa Clarita, Calif., on Sunday.

As the Sand Fire in northern Los Angeles scorched more than 33,000 acres, threatened 10,000 homes, and killed at least one person, nearly 3,000 firefighters battled the wildfire on Monday.

The number of firefighters increased overnight from about 1,600 to 2,964, the US Forest Service said in a press release. This included 356 engines, 26 helicopters, and 43 hand crews.

"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," Justin Correll, an engine fire captain in the San Bernardino National Forest, told the Los Angeles Times.

Since it started in Sand Canyon near the 14 Freeway on Friday, the wildfire has burned more than 33,117 acres, destroyed 18 homes, and killed a man, whose remains were found in a burned vehicle in a driveway on Saturday. The fire also closed the freeway, a main artery from Los Angeles to the Santa Clarita Valley about 40 miles north of the city.

Blistering temperatures, strong winds, and dry conditions have left firefighters only able to contain about 10 percent of it. But, as helicopters dropped water on the fire overnight, the weather was expected to shift on Monday.

Andrew Rorke, a National Weather Service meteorologist, did not expect the weather to help or hurt the firefight. Mr. Rorke forecasted weaker winds, more humid conditions, and a slight drop in temperatures, with a slight chance of thunderstorms over Southern California.

How the fire started has not been determined, although high temperatures, strong winds, and drought spread the fire thousands of acres in a matter of hours. The wildfire is the largest to burn through the Los Angeles area this year. It is far from being the first in California this season. The Golden State has already seen a number of fires, with 22 currently burning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. California is also in its fifth year of a historic drought.

The Sand Fire is distinctive because of how quickly it spread. It ripped through the hills “like a freight train” on Saturday in some areas that have not burned in 60 years, John Tripp, a Los Angeles County deputy fire chief, told the Times.

“We’ve never seen a fire come into Sand Canyon like that,” said Mr. Tripp. “All the experience we’ve had with fires is out the window.”

Max Moritz, a fire ecology and management expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Christina Beck it’s rare to see a fire spread so quickly without Santa Ana winds, which blow westward through California in the fall. Instead, he attributes its rapid growth to years of drought that have created dry and hot conditions.

As firefighters respond on the ground and in the air, they are encouraging residents to protect their neighborhoods too.

“I give talks all the time about how to protect yourself against wildfires in the urban community and the first thing I tell them is 'The fire department may not come,’” San Bernardino County Fire Battalion Chief Michael Wakoski told KVCR. “We don't have a fire truck for every house. We work cooperatively throughout the summer because not one department can handle the situation when it gets bad.”

In other words, home owners can take steps to help protect their homes, such as fireproofing their grounds and gutters, rather than only relying on the fire department.

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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