Friday, July 17, 2015

Wildfire burns cars on Calif. freeway

LOS ANGELES -- A wind-driven wildfire swept over a jammed Southern California freeway -- the critical corridor between Los Angeles and Las Vegas -- Friday afternoon, setting several cars and tractor-trailer trucks ablaze, and burning several homes.

No motorists were reported injured, officials said.

Television video showed several vehicles burning at El Cajon Pass on Interstate 15, packed with vacationers and commuters. The high-desert freeway was closed in both directions. Several homes were also seen burning.

The San Bernardino National Foresttweeted that 20 vehicles were destroyed and 10 others damaged when the fire crossed the freeway's southbound lanes. TV images showed helicopter making direct air drops on the vehicles on the freeway, a new sight to Californians already accustomed to wildfires.

Dozens of travelers fled their vehicles, while hundreds more exited onto side roads if they could. A California Highway Patrol spokesman estimated that 50 to 75 vehicles had been abandoned, KABC-TV reported. Herds of people walked along the freeway to seek safety as the car began to catch fire.

"A lot of people just froze," Arsenio Alcantar of Apple Valley, Calif., told KABC, as he recounted how he was stuck on the freeway but was able to make his way to an exit. "They were panicking."

A Michigan man said he and his family were able escape before their car was consumed by flames. "I just grabbed my kids and ran up the hill."

Although San Bernardino County Fire initially declared a "mass-casualty event" after reports that motorists may have been trapped, there were no immediate reports of injuries. Ambulances were dispatched to the scene.

The so-called North Fire began in chaparral just off the interstate, near the junction with State Route 138, about 2:30 p.m. PT. Fanned by 40-45 mph winds, it had spread to 3,500 acres by 6 p.m. and was headed toward Baldy Mesa, Oak Hills and Phelan. Residents were under mandatory orders to evacuate.

Several homes reportedly were burning in the Baldy Mesa area.

A drone flying over the area forced fire officials to temporarily ground air tankers, according to news reports. It was the third time recently that a remote-controlled aircraft had interfered with firefighting in California.

In addition to 22 engines, authorities had deployed six air tankers, two other airplanes and three helicopters to battle the blaze.

Winter reported from San Francisco and Woodyard from Los Angeles


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