Thousands of homes near Los Angeles were evacuated as two massive wildfires raged in tinder-dry hills and drought-parched canyons north of the city. Flames raced down a steep hillside "like a freight train," leaving smouldering remains of homes, and a burned body was found in one neighbourhood swept by the flames. LA County fire Chief Daryl Osby said: "For this time of year, it's the most extreme fire behaviour I've seen in my 32-year career."

California Sand Fire
Firefighters are forced to retreat as flame close in on them in Placerita Canyon near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/Getty Images
California Sand Fire
Flames are reflected in a back yard swimming pool near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
Residents flee their home as flames close in on Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
Sand Fire
A fallen oak tree burns Placerita Canyon in Santa Clarita, CaliforniaDavid McNew/Getty Images
Sand Fire
A firefighting helicopter flies through thick clouds of smoke in Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/Getty Images

"The fire's just doing what it wants right now," US Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy said. "We have to stick back, let it do what it wants to and attack it where we can." The so-called Sand Fire has ripped through brush withered by days of 100-degree temperatures and years of drought. Whipped up by strong winds, the fire gained ferocious new power two days after it broke out, sending so much smoke in the air that planes dropping water on it had to be grounded.

California wildfires
Local residents watch a blaze dubbed the Sand Fire as it moves towards Fair Oaks Canyon housing estate in Santa ClaritaMark Ralston/AFP
California Sand Fire
Crews battle the so-called Sand Fire in the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles, CaliforniaJonathan Alcorn/Reuters
California Sand Fire
A firefighter hoses down the area around a water tank near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
Sand Fire
A firefighter battles flames in Placerita CanyonDavid McNew/Getty Images
Sand Fire
A firefighting aircraft drops fire retardant in Placerita CanyonDavid McNew/Getty Images

"It started consuming houses that were non-defendable," Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp said, describing the flames as charging through terrain "like a freight train."

The body of a man was discovered in a burned car outside a home on Iron Canyon Road in Santa Clarita, and detectives are trying to determine whether the person was killed by the blaze or another cause, Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt Rob Hahnlein said. The home also may have burned, he said.

California Sand Fire
Flames are whipped up by strong winds near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop at the Sand Fire in the Angeles National ForestJonathan Alcorn/Reuters
California wildfires
A firefighting helicopter makes a drop at Fair Oaks Canyon in Santa ClaritaMark Ralston/AFP
California Sand Fire
Flames close in on homes near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
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Fire spreads through the night in Placerita CanyonDavid McNew/Getty Images
Sand Fire
Glowing embers fly off a burning tree in Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/Getty Images
Sand Fire
A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop near homes in Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/Getty Images
Sand Fire
A scorched forest smoulders in Placerita CanyonDavid McNew/Getty Images
California Sand Fire
A firefighting aircraft drops fire retardant in the Angeles National ForestJonathan Alcorn/Reuters
California Sand Fire
A firefighting helicopter drops water on flames in the Angeles National Forest near Los AngelesJonathan Alcorn/Reuters
California Sand Fire
A firefighter battle flames at the Sand Fire in the Angeles National ForestJonathan Alcorn/Reuters
California Sand Fire
A home that was burned in the Sand Fire is pictured in the Angeles National Forest near Los AngelesJonathan Alcorn/Reuters
California Sand Fire
A firefighting helicopter makes a drop at Fair Oaks Canyon in Santa ClaritaMark Ralston/AFP
California Sand Fire
Firefighters battle flames in Placerita Canyon near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/Getty Images
California Sand Fire
A scorched landscape is left smouldering near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
A firefighter hoses down pipes leading to a water tank near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
Flames are reflected in a window near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
A firefighting DC-10 912 flies low over homes near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
A firefighting helicopter drops water on the Sand Fire near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
A cloud of smoke from the Santa Clarita fire is seen over Los Angeles International AirportValerie Macon/AFP
California Sand Fire
A pergola burns outside a home near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
Flames lap at the wall of a home near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
Residents flee as the Sand Fire approaches their homes near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
A man evacuates a pony as the Sand Fire approaches his home near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP
California Sand Fire
Inmate firefighters shield themselves from embers and heavy smoke near Santa ClaritaDavid McNew/AFP

The Southern California blaze has blackened at least 46 square miles of brush near the city of Santa Clarita. Osby said the size estimate could grow considerably once better assessment is done.

The fire destroyed film sets at Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, which has Old West-style buildings used for film locations. It also forced a non-profit sanctuary for rescued exotic creatures to evacuate 340 of its more than 400 animals, including Bengal tigers and a mountain lion. "It was a horrific firestorm," owner Derek Hunt told KABC-TV. "At some point, you know you're defeated and you have to step back and save what you can. We fought as best as we could."

About 300 miles up the coast, crews were battling another fire spanning more than 17 square miles that destroyed six homes and forced evacuations outside the scenic Big Sur region.