Wildfire chases motorists up hills, burns their cars on I-15 in Southern California

Image courtesy Talia Solafani via CNN

(CNN) – A wildfire driven by desert gales scorched 3,500 acres of Southern California drought land in just four hours on Friday. And Neha Shresha sat in her family’s car, watching it race right at them.
A long, orange wall of flame with black smoke billowing high above it was about to sweep over Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, where their car was trapped in gridlock near Cajon Pass.

There was no driving anywhere, not even off the road.

“So, we ran off. We only got our purses and stuff,” Shresha said later. She and the other three gazed into the gray, burned-out steel hull that was all that remained of their car — aside from ashes blowing in the wind.

The cars in front of and behind theirs for dozens of yards, and four lanes thick, looked the same way. In the end, at least 20 cars burned completely and 10 partially, said the state firefighting authority CALFIRE.

All around the motorists, 1,000 firefighters continued battling the wildfire called North Fire with 22 fire engines, four water trucks, a bulldozer, seven airplanes and three helicopters.

After the flames moved on, motorists streamed back to check on their cars, SUVs and trucks. Most walked away again, abandoning their scorched wrecks where they stood on I-15.

Before dawn Saturday, parts of the highway in the area had been reopened.

Bad wildfire season

The fire started Friday afternoon. By early Saturday, crews had the sweeping blaze 5% contained.

There have been no injuries in the fire, according to CALFIRE. Near a separate, smaller fire in the same mountains, sheriff’s deputies evacuated 90 girl scouts from a campground.

Persistent drought has provided acres of dried out brush as fuel, and 20 mph winds drove the fire quickly over a broad area. With ideal conditions for blazes, firefighters can expect to be busier than average during wildfire season this summer, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

People crying, vomiting

On I-15, Talia Sclafani sat in a van with her soccer teammates, when police came by calling over loudspeakers for people to stay in their cars. But the team and their driver ditched the van anyway and ran up a hill in 95 degree heat.

They stayed up there for about three hours. “There were lots of people crying. Some were vomiting. People were really frightened,” she said.

Down below, a chopper dumped water onto cars and a burning tractor-trailer, as firefighters also fought to save vehicles on the interstate.

For a while, officials were concerned about private drones in the same airspace with the choppers.

“Please stop flying hobby drones in the area. We can’t risk the choppers colliding with them. We could have loss of life,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Gerrelaine Alcordo said.

The lucky ones

A firefighter on the interstate sprayed cars with a hose.

“They said they tried to save my car, which I really appreciate,” said Vicki Beglari, who returned to her car to find it unscathed. Flames had singed the 18-wheeler standing next to it.

As she had watched the wall of fire come hissing up earlier, she realized it wouldn’t stop for I-15. “It jumped the lane, and so they had to stop the freeway,” she said. Motorists exited their vehicles in near unison and headed away from the flames.

“Oh, I was terrified,” she said.

From a safe spot, she looked back and was impressed how quickly the wildfire raged up a mountain after it crossed the interstate.

Flames intruded into nearby communities, burning five homes and threatening 50 more, San Bernardino County Fire said.

In the town of Phelan, dozens of fire trucks pulled up as homeowners with garden hoses cast eerie silhouettes against the dark smoke. They watered down their roofs and trees, anxious that the flames might arrive soon.

Walk off I-15

After the flames passed I-15, Beglari and drivers near her heaved belongings they had salvaged into open trunks, shut the lids and drove off.

Neha Shresha’s father and a law officer scrubbed ash off of their car to try find its VIN number — its metal identification strip behind the windshield. The officer wanted them to photograph it.

But the flames had seared it away — and the windshield with it.

“I’ll probably call a relative,” Shresha said. That’s how she figured her family would get home after they walked down off the interstate.

CNN’s Steve Almasy, Paul Vercammen and Sonya Hamasaki contributed to this report.

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