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Jul 25, 9:36 PM EDT

A raging wildfire that forced thousands from their homes on the edge of Los Angeles continued to burn Monday as frustrated fire officials said residents reluctant to heed evacuation orders made conditions more dangerous and destructive for their neighbors


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SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) -- A raging wildfire that forced thousands from their homes on the edge of Los Angeles continued to burn Monday as frustrated fire officials said residents reluctant to heed evacuation orders made conditions more dangerous and destructive for their neighbors.

The smoky fire tore through drought-ravaged brush that hadn't burned in decades amid a sweltering heat wave and exploded over the weekend. It burned more than 51 square miles (132.09 sq. kilometers) and destroyed at least 18 residences.

By late afternoon Monday, the large majority of

But some firefighters had been unable to battle some of the blaze because of evacuation holdouts they had to spend time helping to safety instead of putting out destructive flames, County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

Some firefighters "felt that they lost additional structures because they had to stop what they were doing to help citizens evacuate," Osby said.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Justin Correll urged residents to leave quickly when evacuation orders are issued because their "property becomes secondary."

"We don't want firemen to become traffic directors," he said.

The fire was one of two destructive California infernos that were sending smoke wafting hundreds of miles (kilometers) away to Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, where officials issued air pollution warnings.

A blaze in the scenic Big Sur region of the Central Coast by Monday had destroyed 20 homes and threatened 1,650 others as it burned 23 square miles (60 square kilometers).

In Santa Clarita, 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, a fire broke out Friday near a highway and quickly spread through arid vegetation in rugged mountains before making its way down into canyons with sprawling subdivisions of large homes.

By Monday, about 10 percent of Santa Clarita's 200,000 residents had been ordered out of their homes as erratic winds stoked the blaze. The large majority were allowed to return Monday night. It wasn't clear exactly how many would remain in their homes, but only two neighborhoods remained under evacuation orders.

The fire exploded Saturday 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.

When the blaze appeared to die down, she thought the worst was over and returned. Then it flared up again, and she and her son used a garden hose to put out embers that ignited spot fires on her property before fleeing.

"The heat was so intense," Franklin said Monday from a high school that had been turned into an evacuation center. "It was an inferno that was blazing ... just coming over the ridge."

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.

The fire destroyed film sets at Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, which has Old West-style buildings used for movie locations. It also forced a nonprofit sanctuary for rescued exotic creatures to evacuate 340 of its more than 400 animals, including Bengal tigers and a mountain lion.

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.

Nearly 3,000 firefighters were trying to put the Santa Clarita blaze out.

Fire trucks lined streets of vacant and nearly vacant subdivisions as helicopters dropped water and planes unleashed ribbons of red fire retardant to protect homes.

Air quality officials issued smoke advisories warning people in the greater Los Angeles area about dangers from breathing smoke that wafted over the region and rained ash on Saturday.

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

One belonged to Ted Kellum, a defense contractor who moved in two years ago with his wife and four children. Kellum recalled Monday that he saw smoke pouring over a mountain ridge Friday and "scurried" with his family when a wall of flames and a cloud of smoke followed the next day and destroyed a neighbor's $3 million house.

On Sunday, their 20-year-old son lied about going to see a girlfriend and instead crawled under a bridge and crept back into the neighborhood to check on their house.

Kellum and his wife, Helen, teared up as they recalled the joy of finding out the house they loved was still standing.

"It's like an Eden," Kellum said. "It's so beautiful except for the risk."

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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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