Hundreds of drivers fled Interstate 5 as the fast-moving Delta fire surrounded them
Wildfires burn Friday on the ridgeline east of I-5 just south of the Gibson Road exit near Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Hung T. Vu / AP)
Crews from Yocha Dehe Fire Department work Friday to put out a grass fire along I-5 at Earl Sholes Memorial Bridge near Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Hung T. Vu / AP)
Firefighter Tyler Benson throws a flare to start a back fire as the the Delta fire burns along Pollard Camp Road north of Redding.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters monitor the Delta Fire along Interstate 5 north of Redding, Calif.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters struggle to contain backfire in the Pollard Flat area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Old vintage trucks burned from the Delta Fire along Salt Creek Road north of Redding, Calif.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Interstate 5 is empty in Lamoine because of the Delta fire, which has burned more than 22,000 acres in Northern California.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A statue remains at a home destroyed by the Delta fire in Lamoine.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A burned bicycle is seen among the ruins of a smoldering home destroyed by the Delta fire in Lamoine.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Embers fly above a firefighter as he hustles to control a backfire as the Delta fire burns in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
Flames from a backfire surround a fire truck in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on Thursday.(Noah Berger / AP)
A firefighter passes a backfire Thursday in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Noah Berger / AP)
Crews monitor a backfire Thursday while battling the Delta Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Noah Berger / AP)
A scorched VW Beetle rests in a clearing after the Delta Fire burned through the Lamoine community in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Calif.(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
A home leveled by the Delta Fire rests in a clearing in Pollard Flat area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Noah Berger / AP)
California Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Loveless examines a truck scorched by the Delta fire burning along Interstate 5 in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
A crane lifts a truck scorched by the Delta fire on Interstate 5 in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The highway remains closed to traffic in both directions as crews battle the blaze.(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
A scorched truck rests on Interstate 5 as the Delta Fire burns in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
An abandoned smoldering truck rests along Interstate 5 after the Delta fire tore through the region and jumped the road in Delta.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter sprays down a burned big rig that was abandoned along Interstate 5 as the Delta fire tore through the region.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Firetrucks pass the Delta fire burning in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
Fire surrounds an intersection during the Delta fire.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Light from a train is seen as it rounds a bend near the Sacramento River as flames from the Delta fire fill a valley in Delta.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Rafael Lomeli sat helpless in his truck, surrounded by a wall of flames that had jumped over Interstate 5.
He called his family to tell them he loved them; then he prayed. In the back of his semitruck sat 2,000 gallons of bottled water.
The sky grew dark and cloudy as the wind started to blow. A hellish scene soon developed along the 5 as 300-foot flames burned through tall pines and firs.
One driver stopped in front of Lomeli, got out of his car with a boy and ran in the opposite direction. Several others followed, including a family and about 15 firefighters that had just arrived at the scene. He was about to do the same — until he saw the flames behind him.
The windows of Lomeli’s truck were hot to the touch. He blasted the air conditioning, desperate. All he wanted was to make it home to Yuba City and see his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 6, again.
The flames swirling around the highway, it was as if Mother Nature was acting like a fire eater, suddenly shooting flames onto nearby drivers, he said.
“It was like a tornado of fire, and we were in the center of it,” the 30-year-old truck driver said in Spanish during a telephone interview.
When the fire started, law enforcement officers were diverting hundreds of cars and trucks to the La Moine exit to turn around, but the blaze started advancing rapidly toward that once-safe location, said Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Foster of the California Highway Patrol’s Mount Shasta office.
Officers had to send cars and trucks through a 12-foot gap in the center median designed for emergency vehicles. Remarkably, they were able to get most vehicles turned around and away from the flames, he said.
About 17 semis were abandoned by drivers who couldn’t maneuver their trucks out in time, and at least four of them were burned.
“The flames were over the tops of trees, 50-foot high, right here on the shoulder on both sides of Interstate 5,” said Sgt. Tim Hinkson of the California Highway Patrol. “It wasn’t like it was a couple hundred feet from the freeway. It was right on top of the freeway.”
Less than 24 hours after the blaze broke out Wednesday in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the Delta fire had grown to more than 15,000 acres. By Thursday evening, it had scorched 22,000 acres and was 0% contained. Fire officials feared that once the inversion layer sitting over the fire cleared, the blaze would once again explode through the mountainous forest region, heading farther north toward Gibson, east toward Greens Mountain and west toward Damnation Peak.
By early Friday, the fire could expand east — and possibly merge — with the Hirz fire, a 46,150-acre blaze that’s 80% contained, fire officials said.
At least three homes have been damaged or destroyed, and several more are under threat. About 300 people have evacuated along the 5 from La Moine to the Shasta-Siskiyou county line, said Capt. Brandon Vaccaro, a Delta fire spokesman.
Lakehead resident Stan Kulak fled his longtime home near Pollard Flat after watching 200-foot flames burning through pine trees along the Sacramento River canyon and the interstate.
For decades, the family has lived on 40 acres behind the Pollard Flat restaurant and gas station, about 36 miles north of Redding.
Kulak rushed to pack his wife’s medicines, two family heirlooms — an old wooden clock that has been in his family for more than 100 years and his late mother’s .22-caliber rifle — and most importantly, their Jack Russell terrier, Ducky.
Helicopters hovered and several fire engines surrounded Kulak’s home, his brother’s home and one other house on the property. Firefighters soaked Kulak’s three-bedroom house in water and cleared brush, but they couldn’t keep the fast-moving Delta fire away.
A family friend told the Kulaks that all that’s left standing is the metal door frame.
The 71-year-old Vietnam veteran was grateful his brother woke him up from his afternoon nap when the fire was less than a mile from his house.
“I’ve been shot twice and blown up twice, but [to be killed by] a goddarn fire, that’d be a real pisser, wouldn’t it?” Kulak said.
The blaze forced the closure of about 45 miles of Interstate 5 — the main artery between Redding and the Oregon border. Kulak spent 6½ hours driving from Mount Shasta to Lakehead, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic that the local highways rarely see.
Traffic worsened Thursday when a car and a semitruck collided on Route 299 near Oak Run, leaving the truck jackknifed across both lanes of one of the main detours around I-5. By late afternoon, traffic on the winding, two-lane highway hadn’t moved more than a mile in a few hours.
“We’re trying to jam tens of thousands of cars into a single roadway that’s capable of seeing maybe 2,500 cars a day,” said Jason Morton, a public information officer with the California Highway Patrol stationed in Redding.
Union Pacific Railway also shut down its tracks between Redding and Dunsmuir. The company has water cars protecting its tracks and other equipment in areas where it’s safe enough to travel within, spokesman Justin Jacobs said.
Between eight and 15 trains move through the stretch daily hauling a range of goods — including batteries, televisions and cars — that make up roughly the equivalent of about 3,000 semitrucks a day, Jacobs said.
“It’s a pretty significant amount of cargo,” he said.
Much like the massive Mendocino Complex and Carr fires, the Delta fire has been fueled by dry conditions, wind and unforgiving warm temperatures.
There’s not one specific reason the region has been susceptible to fire in recent weeks.
“Maybe it’s a coincidence” that the Delta, Hirz and Carr fires have all ignited in a cluster, making for one of the worst fire seasons Shasta County has seen in decades, said Scott Stephens, a fire sciences professor at UC Berkeley.
Or maybe it has to do with the fact that it’s a heavily forested rural area, broken in some parts only by highways, which makes it so that vehicle sparks are dangerously close to fuel, he said. Stephens said the fires appear to all be human-caused accidents that just happened to ignite in the same area.
The Carr fire, which burned 229,651 acres and killed at least seven people, was started by a vehicle’s flat tire, and Stephens suspects the cause of the Delta fire was also transportation-related.
“This fire is certainly going to be human-ignited because it’s by a transportation corridor,” he said. “I’ve always called people fire magnets, because more people simply means more ignition.”
But Eric Knapp, a fire ecologist based in Redding, said he wouldn’t attribute the cause of this cluster of fires to people alone.
Though the population has been increasing, even in these rural areas, the number of human-caused fires and the number of fires started in general hasn’t increased over time. It’s the number of total acres burned in California overall that has increased dramatically, indicating the fires are simply faster and more intense.
They are also harder to put out, he said.
“This is a really rugged area, and there’s not a lot of people who live there,” he said. “It’s hard to fight fire in this landscape and then you add the fuel accumulation issue and the drought…. It’s just another factor that makes it a challenging area to control once the fire starts.”
The Shasta County area is also susceptible to fires because of its dry coniferous vegetation — large fir, pine and evergreen trees — on steep slopes that make flames travel faster.
“What happens is when a fire goes up a hill, the fire’s flame leans forward and the flame then preheats the fuel that’s in front of the fire,” Stephens said. “So the green fuel is heated by the flame of the fire going uphill, making it much easier to burn.”
Motorists who were stuck on Interstate 5 at the onset of the blaze watched from their vehicles as flames devoured trees and advanced toward the highway. One woman pulled out her phone to document the fire in a video that was posted to social media as traffic remained at a standstill.
“Oh my God, I want to go,” the woman, identified on Instagram as Narraf Ellesse, screamed. “We’ve got to get out and walk. We cannot stay right here.”
She began to sob as the flames jumped along the treetops.
Some truckers unlatched their trailers in an effort to escape the blaze. Others opted to catch a ride with strangers and abandon their vehicles completely.
On Thursday, Lomeli was grateful for his life. The truck driver was able to zigzag around abandoned vehicles on I-5 once the flames died down enough and escape the blaze.
“I just wanted to get out of that mountain,” he said. “It felt ugly. I felt desperation.”
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