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Jul 26, 11:05 AM EDT

Evacuees return amid progress against big California fire


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SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) -- Most of the roughly 20,000 evacuees forced out by a wildfire were cleared to go home, but firefighters still faced huge work Tuesday in taming an expansive wildfire in mountains north of Los Angeles.

The fire's size increased modestly overnight to 58˝ square miles (150.22 sq. kilometers) but containment more than doubled to 25 percent. Authorities, however, remained cautious.

"We're not really out of the woods," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Justin Correll. "We're not ready to relax. There's still a lot of firefighting to do."

A week of triple-digit temperatures awaited the nearly 3,000 firefighters battling flames in rugged terrain between Los Angeles and suburban Santa Clarita, where many homes are tucked into canyon lands.

Residents of two neighborhoods still under threat had to remain out of their homes, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Eighteen residences have been destroyed in the blaze that started Friday afternoon and quickly tore through drought-ravaged brush that hadn't burned in decades.

Laurent Lacore was among those who evacuated on Saturday, the last of his family of four to leave as the fire bore down on his house.

"The flames were right behind our backyard," he said.

Lacore was also among many who were told they could return on Sunday only to learn on arriving at the scene that new winds and new flames meant more days in a hard-to-find hotel room.

He returned Monday night delighted to find the house and everything around it had been saved, and could see a line of red fire retardant nearby where a helicopter had stopped the fire's approach.

"Everything is fine," he said. "Even all of the trees are there."

Firefighters saved about 2,000 homes in the fire's first three days, Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp said.

Some 300 miles to the northwest a blaze in the scenic Big Sur region of the Central Coast had destroyed 20 homes and threatened 1,650 others as it burned 30 square miles (77.7 sq. kilometers) by Tuesday morning, though firefighters made gains Monday and had it 10 percent contained.

The two blazes sent smoke as far away as Nevada, where officials issued air pollution warnings.

At the peak of the Southern California fire about 10 percent of Santa Clarita's 200,000 residents had been ordered out of their homes, before most were allowed to return Monday night.

The fire exploded over the weekend like a "crazy storm," said Kara Franklin, who said sand driven by heavy winds hit her in the face as she tried to get a horse and donkey into a trailer so she could tow the animals away. From a ridgetop, she saw flames engulf a neighborhood.

"The heat was so intense," Franklin said Monday.

A house two doors from hers was engulfed, providing a buffer that helped save her house.

Three Forest Service firefighters lost their homes at a remote fire station in the San Gabriel Mountains, including two who were fighting the fire at the time.

Investigators on Monday were trying to determine the cause of death of a man whose body was found in a car in the fire zone Saturday.

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Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Kristin Bender and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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