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Surviving freeway fire: ‘It was honestly terrifying’

A big-rig burns on the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass as a brush fire that has grown to more than 2,000 acres moves toward two mountain communities.
A big-rig burns on the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass as a brush fire that has grown to more than 2,000 acres moves toward two mountain communities.
(KTLA )

Sometime in the early afternoon, Taya Hart and her soccer teammates, who were headed from their homes in Las Vegas to San Diego for a tournament, inched around a bend on the 15 Freeway.

Traffic was almost at a standstill.

Hart, 16, looked out the window and saw smoke, a single fire truck and weeds to the left of the interstate burning.

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It didn’t look like anything huge, she thought. But then an ember hopped over to the right side of 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.”

Hart and her teammates and a father of one of the girls, their driver, worried about leaving their van, so they watched nervously as smoke started to swirl in around them.

Then a car off in the distance went up in flames. Hart left her soccer gear, but grabbed her purse, and jumped out of the van. She started running up the hill and her heart beat fast. Her body shook.

She dialed her mother.

“I love you, Mom,” Hart told her. “But there’s a huge fire.”

Her mom started crying.

“It was honestly terrifying,” Hart said.

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Eventually, the wind and flames started to die down, she said, and she and her teammates slowed to a walk.

Law enforcement officials set up an area off in the dirt, she said, and gave them ice and bottles of water. Eventually they were able to go back to their van, she said, but by Friday evening they were still stuck near the roadway and still hadn’t decided if they would try to make it to their tournament.

Authorities said the fire swept across the 15 Freeway, destroying 20 vehicles, damaging 10 others. Helicopters made dramatic water drops on burning vehicles.

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Gilbert Cagatin was heading from Las Vegas to Temecula with his family on Friday afternoon, when traffic began to slow in the Cajon Pass.

He looked up and noticed white smoke in the distance. But the smoke turned black quickly, and it became clear something was very wrong on Interstate 15.

“All the traffic stopped, and as the smoke got blacker, people got scared,” Cagatin, 19, told The Times.

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The fire became visible on the side of the freeway, and people started getting out of their cars. In some cases, they were chased away by flames. Officers, he said, told people to abandon their cars.

Cagatin and his family managed to get some of those people into their truck. They managed to get off the freeway and onto a side road.

“Cars were going in the opposite direction into traffic. It was that bad,” he said.

Authorities said the fire swept across the 15 Freeway, destroying 20 vehicles, damaging 10 others. Helicopters made dramatic water drops on burning vehicles.

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About 60 to 70 cars were abandoned on the road, so emergency responders had a difficult time trying to maneuver through all the cars left behind. They were able to turn some cars around that were outside the immediate hot zone through an access road between the northbound and southbound side of the highway.

No serious injuries were reported.

Video posted by motorists trapped on the freeway showed people getting out of their vehicles and walking away from the cars on fire.

In one Facebook video, posted by KABC-TV, a motorist drives by as flames roar on the side of the freeway.

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The fire had burned more than 3,500 acres and was spreading rapidly through the chaparral and grass.

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