L.A. Now

Flames sweep over freeway; motorists run for their lives

Taya Hart grabbed her purse and jumped out of the van. She ran away from the freeway, uphill, her heart beating fast. Her body shook.

Taya, 16, called her mother.

“I love you, Mom,” she said. “But there's a huge fire.”

On Friday afternoon, Taya and her soccer teammates were headed south to San Diego on Interstate 15 from their homes in Las Vegas for a tournament when they encountered a brush fire in the Cajon Pass.

UPDATE: Most lanes of 15 Freeway reopen after fire >>

The fire, which erupted just after 2:30 p.m. and quickly grew to 3,500 acres, shut down the highway in both directions. By evening, it had destroyed 20 vehicles and at least four homes, and was bearing down on mountain communities. Most lanes of the 15 were open by Saturday morning, but hundreds of firefighters were still on the lines.

In a region where brush fires are a way of life, the scene on the main route to Las Vegas was surreal.

Many of those who fled their vehicles panicked, unsure of where to find safety as they watched the land around them burn. Cars, trucks and even a boat went up in flames on the freeway. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft made dramatic drops of water and flame retardant.

“I've never seen anything like this before,” California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Carapia told The Times.

When traffic began to slow on the 15, Taya looked out a window and saw smoke, a single firetruck and weeds to the left of the highway. It didn't look like anything huge, she thought.

But then an ember hopped over to the right side of the freeway and she saw something that looked like a small firecracker going off.

“It got bigger and bigger and bigger,” she said. “The wind was crazy .... It was really scary.”

Taya, her teammates and the driver — the father of one of the girls — worried about leaving the van, so they watched nervously as smoke started to curl around them.

Then a car in the distance went up in flames. That's when Taya ditched her soccer gear, started to run and phoned her mother.

“It was honestly terrifying,” she said.

Officials said heavy winds mixed with dry chaparral and grass created a dangerous combination.

Shortly before the fast-moving blaze jumped the freeway and the cars caught fire, officials had to halt water drops because of a recreational drone flying nearby. It was the third time in recent weeks that firefighters were grounded because of drones. The devices could collide with aircraft that fly at low altitudes, authorities say.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

The CHP's Carapia said that 60 to 70 cars were abandoned on the road, which made it difficult for emergency responders to maneuver. They were able to turn some cars around via an access road between the north and southbound lanes.

Russell Allevato, a tourist from Michigan, was headed to Los Angeles when he said he saw flames shoot 100 feet into the air.

Allevato, who was with his two teenage daughters and a nephew, said he started to feel trapped and hot.

“So we got out of the car and ran up the hill,” he said. “We ran for our lives.”

It felt like a disaster movie, he said about going from watching the traffic slow to sprinting away from the freeway in just a few minutes.

“It happened all of a sudden,” he said. “The flames were everywhere.”

He watched a car hauler with eight vehicles on it explode. His own rental 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe is among the skeletons of cars scattered along the highway, he said.

“We've no car and nowhere to stay,” Allevato said. “We cannot get anywhere.”

Upland resident Henry Becerra was also left without a car.

He was driving from Hesperia to Los Angeles to pick up his 74-year-old godmother to celebrate her birthday. Near Cajon Pass, traffic stopped, and Becerra, 50, waited for 20 minutes in his car. When he saw flames jump the highway, he leaped out of his vehicle.

“I felt the heat right behind me. I'm like, ‘This is it,'” he said.Fearing for his life, Becerra, who has arthritis in his feet, grabbed his car's paperwork and trotted up a nearby hill with a group of others fleeing the flames.

They waited there for hours, sharing water and food. Though they were unable to see what was happening on the road, they could hear the sound of tires popping and see the helicopters overhead.

After three hours, officials told them they could return to their cars, Becerra said. His was so burned he barely recognized it.

When he finally met up with his godmother at a nearby gas station, he joked: “You owe me a car.”

She laughed and said, “As long as you're OK,” and touched her hand to her heart.

As the flames spread, mandatory evacuations were ordered in several small communities as well as at larger ranches. At least 50 homes were threatened, officials said.

Amid the evacuations, fights broke out and people stole merchandise from Baldy's Market, said Melissa Atalla, the store manager at the gas station near the interstate.

“It's pure chaos,” she said. “All the pumps are full; people are just running out of the store with things.”

Sirens could be heard in the background as she spoke on the phone.

Serrano High School became an evacuation center, and as the sun set Friday night, a few families began to trickle in to seek refuge. Emergency crew members from the American Red Cross unloaded green cots and set them up in the school's sprawling gymnasium.

Among the displaced was Bruno Anderson, 56, who said he smelled the smoke and saw the flames before he heard any reports on TV.

“I'm numb, dazed,” said Anderson, who has lived in Phelan for more than a decade. “It got really close.”

As he was driving away from his home, he said, he heard nearby propane tanks explode.

“I knew my house was gone,” he said.

Overwhelmed with a sense of panic, the information technology worker said he could feel his heart beating so fast he thought he was going to faint.

“I thought at one point I wasn't going to make it,” he said.

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Gerber reported from Los Angeles, Parvini and Panzar from the Cajon Pass. Times staff writers Soumya Karlamangla, Ryan Parker and Richard Winton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

7:36 a.m., July 18: This story has been updated with information on the freeway reopening.

9:45 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from a witness and a count of firefighters working the blaze. 

8:45 p.m.: This story has been updated with the information that the fire is 5% contained. 

8:15 p.m.: This story has been updated with the information that it is unclear when the highway will reopen. 

7:32 p.m.: This story has been updated with the information that the fire is at zero percent containment. 

7:08 p.m.: This story has been updated with information from the scene of a gas station near I-15 and with information that a hotshot crew is being deployed to the fire. 

4:37 p.m.: This story has been updated throughout

4:01 p.m.: This story has been updated  with new details.

3:55 p.m.: This story has been updated with cars on fire.

This article was originally published at 3:53 p.m., July 17.

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