LOS ANGELES—A wildfire that swept across a busy California freeway, sending people running for their lives, calmed down overnight as some crews shifted focus Saturday to another blaze that forced hundreds of campers to evacuate, including a Girl Scout troop.
Higher humidity and lower temperatures helped pacify the fire that burned over Interstate 15 in a mountainous area 55 miles northeast of Los Angeles on Friday afternoon. The 5.5-square-mile fire destroyed 20 vehicles on the freeway before burning three homes and 44 more vehicles in the community of Baldy Mesa.
The fire was 5 percent contained. Highway officials on Saturday reopened most of Interstate 15 — the main connector between Southern California and Las Vegas.
Firefighters will focus Saturday on protecting some 700 homes in the Baldy Mesa area, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Underhill said. About 2,800 people remained evacuated, with nearly three dozen spending the night at a temporary shelter.
Underhill said higher humidity and the potential for rain could help firefighters, but thunderstorms could also 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.”
Meanwhile, a blaze that started Friday night in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 20 miles to the northwest of the other fire, forced about 300 campers to flee near the community of Wrightwood. That fire also calmed overnight as crews aggressively attacked it, reaching 10 percent containment on the 125-acre blaze.
Though the second fire had been moving toward Wrightwood, it shifted directions overnight and no homes were considered threatened Saturday, Forest Service spokeswoman Sherry Rollman said.
Saturday’s relief followed sheer chaos on Interstate 15 on Friday, when a wildfire began next to the freeway. Fueled by 40-mph winds, the blaze raced uphill and onto the traffic-clogged freeway, trapping hundreds of people amid a cauldron of smoke, flames and ash.
“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.
Amazingly, only two people were injured. Both suffered minor smoke inhalation, authorities said, but declined medical attention.
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 going on 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.”