A wildfire that destroyed 18 homes has surged back to unpredictable life, darkening the skies north of Los Angeles with black smoke and driving thousands from their homes.

Some evacuees were about to return to their homes Sunday, two days after the fire broke out, when unexpected winds stirred up the blaze.

"All the experience we've had with fires is out the window," said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp, one of many who noted the fires special volatility on Sunday.

The blaze had burned through at least 51 square miles of brush and destroyed at least 18 homes, but those numbers could well take a leap Monday when better assessment is done at daylight. Winds were expected to dip and temperatures break overnight before a heating trend toward triple-digits comes later Monday. One person has been found dead in the fire zone. His death was under investigation.

Juliet Kinikin said Sunday there was panic as the sky became dark with smoke and flames moved closer to her home a day earlier in the Sand Canyon area of Los Angeles County.

"And then we just focused on what really mattered in the house," she told The Associated Press.

Kinikin grabbed important documents and fled with her husband, two children, two dogs and three birds. They were back at home Sunday, "breathing a big sigh of relief," she said.

Lois Wash, 87, said she and her daughter and her dog evacuated, but her husband refused.

"My husband's stubborn as a mule, and he wouldn't leave," Wash told KABC-TV. "I don't know if he got out of there or not. There's no way of knowing. I think the last time I looked it was about 100 yards from us. I don't know if our house is still standing or not. All we can do is pray."

About 300 miles up the coast, crews were battling another fire spanning more than 17 square miles that destroyed six homes on Sunday and forced evacuations outside the scenic Big Sur region. The fire was threatening about 1,650 mountain homes.

Brock Bradford lives in a historic house in Palo Colorado, one of the evacuated areas, and could see the flames coming down the road as he evacuated.

"I hope I don't have to rebuild my house," he told the Monterey Herald. "I'm 66."

In Southern California, planes had to be grounded for a long stretch of the afternoon because of the thick smoke, but resumed drops on the blaze for a few hours before dusk.

Helicopters released retardant around the perimeter of the fire all day and would continue into the night.

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.

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Associated Press photographer Matt Hartman in Santa Clarita and writer Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.