One year later, movie ranches rebound from the Sand Fire

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Before it had a name, the fire started small, burning a mere quarter acre of brush on the south side of Highway 14 near Sand Canyon Road in Santa Clarita on the afternoon of Friday, July 22, 2016. Most such small flare ups are quickly extinguished.

Not this one. By Noon Saturday, the Sand Fire had consumed 11,000 acres (half its ultimate size), and was heading toward Sable Ranch and Rancho Deluxe, two of the 11 movie ranches that have provided backdrops for hundreds of movies and TV shows.

When the fire arrived, “it was a firestorm, like a raging train,” said Derek Hunt, owner of Sable Ranch, which dates to the 1930s as a working ranch, and has been a movie ranch since the 1960s. “You could hear it coming, rumbling and grumbling. It was pretty brutal.”

Back in business

One year later, both movie ranches are back in business. Of the two, Sable was more seriously damaged. Known as the Spanish location for its century-old adobe hacienda, the ranch also had stables and stone accessory buildings. All were destroyed by the fire.

Next door at Rancho Deluxe, co-owner Steve Arklin, Jr., watched as the fire approached through Sable Ranch. “We had a few spot fires the first day that we were able to put out, and had quite a few water trucks ready to go.

On the second day, “working with firefighters and the guys we have here, we were able to set up a perimeter and save the structures on the property,” Arklin said.

Once the worst had passed, “we had flareups and hot spots for several days,” Arklin said. “But after about a week, we knew we’d be OK.”

Limited damage

Damage at Rancho Deluxe was limited to trees and brush. 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, Steve Arklin Sr. said.

Looking back on the Sand Fire with a year’s perspective, Hunt sees a lesson he hopes will inform future firefighting: don’t discount local knowledge.

“Most of our destruction was from backfires that firefighters set,” Hunt said. Firefighters strategically set backfires to slow the progress of an approaching fire by creating a burned area in its path, thus depriving the fire of fuel.

He’s not convinced that this was the wisest course at Sable Ranch, because of the range of firefighting equipment available on the property.

Local knowledge

“Our local firefighters know the community and what kind of firefighting equipment we have, but they weren’t allowed to act on that knowledge,” he said. He’s grateful to outside crews that came in to fight the fire, but said that without local knowledge, they must wait for orders from a command center.

 

The remains of a water tower structure at Sable Ranch. It was destroyed by the Sand Fire, which also burned the hills in the background. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Sable Ranch “lost a lot of history, including sets and our town.” Those structures have yet to be rebuilt. “We have productions going on again, but there’s some business we haven’t gotten back,” Hunt said.

Unless they can afford to build new sets, shows that need a Western town like the one Sable had must go elsewhere, and that’s going to have an economic impact here. “Once those jobs go away, it’s difficult to get them back.”

Then the rains came

Six months after the fire, the heaviest rains in a decade arrived. “It hit ground that didn’t have any brush on it to hold the water back, so it was a pretty devastating stretch,” Arklin said. But the rain helped bring the grass back, he said. “This was the greenest spring with the heaviest cover of wildflowers I’ve ever seen.”

Nature’s one-two punch definitely led to a slowdown in business, Arklin said. “This year, we’re back on track, with productions coming in; business is great.”

In the first half of 2017, Rancho Deluxe was issued seven filming permits by the city of Santa Clarita, representing 16 filming days, compared with 13 permits for 18 filming days in the same period a year earlier. These stats offer a partial picture, as not all filming requires permits.

On the comeback

Business is picking up at Sable as well, which pulled 19 permits for 36 filming days in the first half of this year, compared to 21 permits for 51 filming days in the same stretch of 2016. “We have productions on the property now and business is looking pretty good,” Hunt said.

Both movie ranches continue to update firefighting equipment and keep workers up to date on where it’s kept and how to use it. Sable has added additional pumping capacity.

 

Steve Arklin points out what he calls the “miracle of Rancho Deluxe:” a tee-pee that somehow survived when the Sand Fire swept through the movie ranch in Placerita Canyon. KATHARINE LOTZE/SIgnal. 08012016

Rancho Deluxe has multiple water lines and hoses across the property. Arklin makes sure the hoses are fresh and everyone on his crew knows where everything is.

Last month, when the Placerita Fire broke out, Arklin thought he might need those hoses. “We had 10 water trucks and 30 guys ready to go, but the Fire Department brought in a tremendous amount of air support immediately. They did a really great job.”

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