Two fires continued burning Saturday in rural areas north of San Bernardino, including one that spectacularly overran lanes of Interstate 15 and burned some 20 vehicles, forcing their drivers to run up the highway to escape. However, rain was helping to calm the fires.
- 3:01 p.m. North Fire 5 percent contained, but outlook significantly improved
- 12:12 p.m. Rain calms California fire that jumped freeway, burned cars
- 11:23 a.m. Firefighters work on protecting Baldy Mesa homes
- 9:22 a.m. Sheriff's Department helps evacuate campers away from Pines Fire
- 9:03 a.m. I-15 reopens, evacuations continue
The size of the fire remained steady Saturday at 5.5 square miles, and it was 5 percent contained.
"Things look so much better," Bob Poole, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman, said as he looked across the charred landscape dotted with a half-dozen small plumes of smoke.
Poole said winds that were gusting to 30 mph caused some flare-ups within the perimeter of the fire, "but nothing that's giving us too much concern."
As fire crews focused on protecting homes in Baldy Mesa, Interstate 15 reopened and activity began returning to normal in the area scarred with blackened terrain.
"It's pretty much burnt desert," said Keishawna Williams, who watched in horror Friday as the fire crossed the freeway outside the fast-food restaurant where she works.
As scared as Williams was, she said she couldn't imagine being on the highway when the blaze broke out. She was amazed that no one was killed.
Rain is calming a fast-moving wildfire that sent people running for their lives when flames swept across a California freeway and destroyed 20 cars.
The storm on Saturday brought relief to crews fighting the fire burning in a mountainous area 55 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The rain is also helping slow the spread of another wildfire that broke out Friday about 20 miles away in the San Gabriel Mountains. That fire forced hundreds of campers to evacuate, including a Girl Scout troop.
Firefighters turned their attention Saturday to protecting some 700 homes in the Baldy Mesa area, where about 2,800 people remained evacuated and nearly three dozen spent the night at a temporary shelter.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Underhill said higher humidity and rain could help firefighters, but thunderstorms might bring erratic winds and lightning.
"It's a mixed blessing," she said. "We're in a four-year drought so if lightning strikes the right tree, it could ignite."
The fire in Cajon Pass sparked sheer chaos on Interstate 15 when a it began next to the freeway. Fueled by 40 mph winds, the blaze raced uphill and onto the traffic-clogged freeway, temporarily trapping hundreds of people amid a cauldron of smoke, flames and ash.
Amazingly, only two people were injured. Both suffered minor smoke inhalation, authorities said, but declined medical attention.
"We were surrounded by the flames. They were to the left, then in front of us and they came around to the right. We were in a big horseshoe in the middle," Russell Allevato said.
The Michigan man, who was on vacation with his family, watched helplessly as flames engulfed his rental car and destroyed everything inside while he, his nephew and two teenage daughters fled to safety.
"People were screaming. It was just crazy," he said.
Drivers and their passengers had no choice but to abandon their cars as the flames hopscotched down the freeway, destroying 20 vehicles, several of which exploded in fireballs.
Among those trapped by the flames was Lance Andrade, a 29-year-old railroad conductor from nearby Apple Valley who found himself caught in the traffic jam just as the fire jumped the freeway. Soon, people were running toward him and he joined them, only to find there was nowhere to run. Flames had surrounded him and the others.
A panicked-looking firefighter ordered everyone to take cover, and Andrade said he huddled with four other men and two elderly women in the back of a tractor-trailer rig until the flames passed. One of the women, who had become separated from her family, began to cry. Everybody was terrified.
"You could hear the explosions from people's vehicle tires popping from the heat," Andrade said. "You could hear crackling. Smoke was coming in every direction. You could feel the heat. We just waited it out and prayed to God."
The initial firefight was hampered by five drones that were being flown in the area when fire broke out, said Lee Beyer, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. He said several firefighting aircraft were delayed or diverted until the drones moved out of the area.
Nelly Venzor said she and several members of her family, including her 95-year-old mother, abandoned their car and received a ride to their home in nearby Hesperia from a stranger in a pickup truck.
"When the fire just jumped to the other side of the freeway I thought, 'It's really hot and my mom is in the car. And if we have to run it has to be done now. Quick, before we get stuck here and roast,'" Venzor said.
"People could not move their cars. People were running. I thought, 'OK, this is it.' I really did," she said.
California is in the midst of severe drought, and wildfires are common. Some break out near freeways, but it's very unusual to have vehicles caught in the flames.
It being a Friday afternoon, however, Interstate 15 was typically jammed with vehicles traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Adding to the congestion was construction work in the area, said San Bernardino County fire Capt. Josh Wilkins.
Allevato and his family had left Las Vegas earlier in the day for Los Angeles, where they had hoped they might meet the Kardashian sisters at the family's West Hollywood clothing boutique.
Allevato's 15-year-old daughter, Leah, was devastated.
"We waited two years for this vacation, and I saved all my money," she said. "I was thinking about it every day, and I finally got here and I have no clothes ... I waited so long, and it's ruined."
Tony Velasco, a photojournalist with OnScene TV, said he saw a convoy of dozens of San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department patrol cars and vans ferry kids and other campers away from the Pines Fire near Wrightwood to Serrano High School in Phelan.
“By 2:30, 2:45 in the morning, they had the majority of the camps already evacuated,” Velasco said.
Most of those at the Serrano High evacuation center were children from Wrightwood-area camps.
By 4 a.m., the Pines Fire had topped a ridge and began advancing slowly downhill toward Baldy Mesa. Velasco said the fire could be seen from the door of the Serrano High gym.
The children mostly slept or kept themselves occupied inside the gym, Velasco said, but Red Cross and church volunteers staffing the evacuation center were fixated on the sight of the fire.
“They were all in shock; they were like, ‘Wow, now it’s starting to come over the hill and start coming down the back side of it,'” Velasco said.
Three homes and eight other structures burned in the North Fire, according to Travis Mason of the U.S. Forest Service. About 2,800 people remained under evacuation orders.
— Sharon McNary/KPCC
The North Fire grew to 3,500 acres by early Saturday after crossing the freeway north of Highway 138 late Friday afternoon. The burned vehicles, including a small boat and large semi-truck, were cleared from Interstate 15 by Saturday morning, and the most lanes of that freeway were reopened.
About 1,000 firefighters, 22 engines and ten firefighting aircraft are battling the North Fire.
The smaller second fire, dubbed the Pines Fire, broke out along Angeles Crest Highway north of Wrightwood near Big Pines about 9:30 p.m. Friday. That's about 15 miles due west of the North Fire. Officials say the fire had burned 125 acres early Saturday and was about 10 percent contained, with no injuries or buildings threatened by flames. Angeles Crest Highway, also known as Highway 2, was closed west of Wrightwood to the Mountain High ski resort.
Cooler weather moved into Southern California Saturday, bringing much-needed moisture that would help slow the advance of the Pine and North fires, but which also brought the threat of lightning strikes that could ignite further fires. Cloud cover in the region could also halt air crews battling the fire.
Serrano High School in Phelan, a rural community near Wrightwood, was operating Saturday as an evacuation center for people who were forced off the freeway and from their homes in nearby Baldy Mesa the day before.
The school was also receiving campers who were evacuated from about 11 campgrounds in Wrightwood who were in the path of the Pine Fire. About 400 campers were evacuated from the area. Buses collected some of the campers from their sites, including about 130 special needs children.
The changing weather, bringing a 30 to 40 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms to the region, brings a wider threat of lightning-ignited fire.
Residents who live in the Colby Fire zone at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Azusa and Glendora were cautioned by city officials to remove cars and trash containers from their streets, to keep it clear for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.
For updates on the fire and a map of the evacuation area, see the KPCC Fire Tracker:
Mandatory evacuations remained in place for the area of Baldy Mesa east of Sheep Creek Road north of Highway 138, west of Highway 395 and south of Phelan Road.
The evacuation center at Serrano High School is located at 9292 Sheep Creek Rd. in Phelan, Calif. Large animals can be taken to the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds in Victorville, located at 14800 7th St., Gate E.
— Sharon McNary/KPCC
This story has been updated.