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Jul 26, 3:15 AM EDT

Hot, hard days ahead for firefighters on California blaze


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SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) -- Most of the roughly 20,000 evacuees forced out by a wildfire have been cleared to go home, but firefighters still had huge work ahead in taming a massive wildfire northwest of Los Angeles.

A week of triple digit temperatures awaited the army of some 3,000 firefighters battling flames in rugged hills and canyons.

Residents of two neighborhoods still under threat had to remain out of their homes, the U.S. Forest Service said, after a day when the fire grew only slightly to about 55 square miles (142.26 sq. kilometers).

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 25 square miles (64.75 sq. kilometers), 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.

In Santa Clarita, 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the fire broke out Friday, spreading through rugged mountains before making its way into canyons with sprawling subdivisions.

At the fire's peak, 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 from a high school that had been turned into an evacuation center.

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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