Flames sweep over California freeway; motorists run for their lives – ‘It happened all of a sudden. The flames were everywhere.’Posted by Jim at Saturday, July 18, 2015
By Marisa Gerber, Sarah Parvini, and Javier Panzar
18 July 2015
(Los Angeles Times) – 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.
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.” [more]