Steve Arklin Jr., family members, friends and a volunteer crew of some 30 people at Rancho Deluxe went three days without sleep fighting to protect their home and business at the family’s movie ranch. Despite knowing what to do – it was the third fire they’d battled in their lifetime – at one point Arklin thought they were going to lose it all.
The fire started out small, burning just a quarter of an acre of brush on the south side of Highway 14 near Sand Canyon Road in Santa Clarita on Friday, July 22. Brush fires in the summer are nearly as common as families gathering for evening dinners on the patios after the sun sets and the temperatures have cooled. It was expected that firefighters would quickly put out the flames.
But fires are unpredictable. What started out small rapidly grew mean and stubborn, dodging the firefighters’ efforts to control it. The once small brush fire suddenly jumped the railroad tracks that serve as easy transport home for commuters on the Metrolink train service. The one-time brush fire became a wildfire, and was given a name: the Sand Fire.
After jumping the tracks, flames roared into Placerita Canyon, devouring brush that, in some cases, hadn’t seen a fire in five to seven decades. The fire storm barreled out of the canyon within a matter of 45 minutes, said Arklin’s father, Steve Sr.
It burned in a byzantine manner whereby several times over the course of many days it raced forward and then doubled back on those fighting the fires. It threatened lives, homes, pets, livestock and many of the Santa Clarita Valley’s movie ranches.
Thirteen days later, water tank crews still worked in shifts to combat the hot spots that were smoldering and flaring up when we visited the Rancho Deluxe site. But on this visit, it was finally the calm after the storm. In the tradition of “the show must go on,” several film location scouts had already been to the movie ranch to see what the property looked like after the Sand Fire barreled through.
Three days of hell
“It was pretty crazy. It was a firestorm coming over the mountain like a raging train or an out of control animal,” said Derek Hunt from Sable Ranch, a movie ranch abutting Rancho Deluxe. “You could hear it coming. The noise was just rumbling, rumbling. It was coming out of the mountains all behind us and it was pretty brutal.”
Fire companies were in and out of the movie ranches with a couple of bull dozers, working with the ranch crews to connect hoses together. But they were continuously being redeployed as the fires chased up the canyon roads and through small towns, leaving the all-volunteer crew on the movie ranch to fight the fire alone. The firefighters were trying to follow the head of the fire as it burned toward Acton, Arklin Jr. said.
“It was such a scary situation being in the middle of it. We know all the evacuation routes on the ranch and safe spots to be where the fires can’t reach us,” he said. “But at one point the fire came barreling down on us and we were running to fall back to the next line (of defense). Even the firefighters left.”
At times it was dead still – you couldn’t even hear the birds. Then a minute later the fire was descending on them with sounds like a hurricane or thunder storm. Winds were gusting 50 mph. At one point the fire was chasing Arklin Jr. in his Polaris vehicle as fast he could drive. With blinding smoke – they couldn’t see more than five feet in front of their face – the volunteers were assaulted with heat, smoke and embers raining down on their bodies and into their eyes. With flames reaching 100 feet tall – roughly the equivalent of a 10-story building – it felt like one’s skin was going to melt off from 500 yards away, Arklin Jr. said.
“In the middle of that, we were communicating with guys in helicopters asking me where to drop the loads of water and Phos-Chek,” he said. “They’d never been here and didn’t know the area. I know how wind is going to blow and where to put it.”
But the winds were so strong, the fire was jumping over the Phos-Chek 100 yards at a time. It was so virulent that not even the fire breaks helped. Winds were pushing flames ahead of the main fire. Four different times the volunteer crew felt a sense of relief only to see that go up in flames as the fires doubled back on them.
“It was insane. At one point, literally the whole property was on fire. It was coming from every direction I looked – north, south, east and west,” Arklin Jr. said. “The only thing I had left to do was go and sit on top of the mountain. If I had any fluids still left in my body, I would have cried. Devastation is an understatement.”
Organizing the fight
Just before evacuations were ordered and roads blockaded on Friday night, Arklin knew they would be cut off from help on the first night of the fire if they didn’t act quickly. He and his father, Steve Arklin Sr., started calling out for help to battle the blaze. Sons Steve Jr., who manages the movie ranch, Josh, Dustin and Ryan started organizing. Wife Diane ran out to load up the car with enough food to feed a crew for days.
In all, some 25 people came in to help the family protect the structures and land. Eight FX water trucks – used to create special effects in the movies – were ordered because they can shoot water hundreds of feet in every direction to counter raging flames. The ranch also used the two water trucks they owned, bringing the total to 10 water tanks. Everyone arrived just before the roads were shut down.
“The fire just erupted on Sable Ranch (movie ranch next door) when the whole thing happened. We had to evacuate them,” Arklin Jr. said. “We had all our trucks lined up over there when it was burning through there, but the wind was so strong the fire kept flaring up for a whole day and night.”
Devastation and salvation
In the end, one of the film sets for a new show at Sable Ranch, “Ultimate Beastmaster,” was “burned to a crisp” even though the production company plans to come back in and film, he said. Sable lost quite a bit of his movie sets such as its western town, the “Utopia” set built for a reality TV show Fox aired in late 2014, and ABC’s “Wipeout” set. But the firefighting crews were able to save owner Derek Hunt’s personal house and grandmother’s home, Arklin Jr. said. Crews also saved the Spanish style house that “NCIS” used for filming a couple years ago. In the end, half of the movie ranch was lost to the fires. The next day, Saturday, the fire came roaring up onto Rancho Deluxe.
Through it all, the Arklin family was busy preparing meals for those fighting the fire. At one point, the ranch had lost all of its power and gas, so Diane used camping stoves to cook food. As food was prepared, crews repeatedly doused every blade of grass, roof and structure with water for days on end.
Between renting bulldozers and water trucks, and paying and feeding crews, it cost Rancho Deluxe some $200,000 to fight the Sand Fire, but in the end they saved every home, structure and movie set on their ranch, Arklin Sr. said. Even the farm animals were saved. Only the brush surrounding their ranch was scorched, including the hill where only a month ago we had visited the outdoor set for the filming of the new TV series, “Shooter.”
More than a week after the fire, flames were still erupting here and there and the ranch still had small crews of four working 24-hour shifts to watch for and extinguish flare-ups. The winds are the enemy.
“All you need is the devil wind to come up and it’s kicking your ass,” he said. He pointed to a canopy of oak trees where the fire swept in under the trees so fast it burned the grass – but they saved the trees. “Every one of the guys here was a hero.”
Post-fire, the land surrounding the ranch looks like it sits in the middle of a bomb-torn country. But the ranch itself and all its structures are intact without a burn. Flames even raced down a hill and burned within inches of a teepee used for filming, without touching the structure itself.
The pond on the property still sits within an oasis of green amidst the burnt out canyon. It was fed with extra water to give fish enough oxygen. A large hog was burrowed into a mud pool under an oak tree, staying cool and enjoying the smoke-free surroundings.
Even filming has promptly returned. The movie ranch had a film crew from France there three weeks after the fire, and another show scheduled for the following week. It’s been able to send some of the work to its neighbor, Sable Ranch, as well to “get the life blood flowing” again, Arklin Sr. said. “Some people are even looking for burnt forests; we can corner the market,” he quipped.
“We were able to keep a lot of forest area, so that’s good, but a lot of the property’s definitely going to look different for a few years. If a show wants to film sand dunes, Mars or the moon, we got that too,” Arklin Jr. said.
The only reason the ranch survived is because the family didn’t run from the fires – they ran toward them, he said. Between them and the people at Sable Ranch working together, they fought the flames together standing on the front lines of the fire.
“Channel 7 (KABC) News was asking me for my video footage, saying it was the best they’d seen of the fire fight,” Arklin Jr. said.
And that is when you know – life really did imitate art.