Last updated: 03:29 PM ET, Sat July 18 2015

Southern California Wildfires Force Vacationers to Flee

Impacting Travel | Michael Isenbek | July 18, 2015

Southern California Wildfires Force Vacationers to Flee

Photo via Twitter/CaliforniaPicz

A brushfire in Southern California’s Cajon Pass Friday afternoon engulfed hundreds of drivers, many traveling vacationers, in a fast-moving inferno from which they narrowly escaped, the Associated Press reported. The AP also reported that campers in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains were forced to evacuate when a forest fire broke out in that area.

The pass is located about 55 miles northeast of Los Angeles, and contains a twisting, mountainous section of Interstate 15, a main artery between L.A. and Las Vegas. The AP said the fire started in drought-parched dry grass below the elevated lanes of the interstate. Forty mph winds accelerated the combustion, and flames swiftly traveled up a hill onto the freeway, which was in the midst of a traffic jam.

The fire moved so quickly that passenger had no choice but to leave everything and run for their lives. "We had some highway patrolmen who said they had never seen fire travel that fast," Greg Kieran, a San Bernardino County Fire Hazmat specialist said to the AP. "It just overran these people before they even knew what hit them."

The AP said the flames “hopscotched” down the road, obliterating 20 vehicles, many exploding in fireballs.

Russell Allevato of Southgate, Michigan was traveling in a rental car from Las Vegas to L.A. with his nephew and two teenage daughters when fire was suddenly upon them. "People were screaming. It was just crazy," Allevato commented to the AP via phone from a California Highway Patrol vehicle. "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."

Allevato and his family had to leave clothes and all other belongings they had brought from Michigan in the car as they raced to safety. Ultimately, the AP said the vehicle was “reduced to a charred hunk of steel.”

Lance Andrade, a 29-year-old railroad conductor from nearby Apple Valley ran from his vehicle but was hemmed in by the fire, forcing him to take cover with four other men and two elderly women in the back of a tractor-trailer rig. One of the women, separated from her family, began to cry. Everybody was scared.

"You could hear the explosions from people's vehicle tires popping from the heat," Andrade told the AP. "You could hear crackling. Smoke was coming in every direction. You could feel the heat. We just waited it out and prayed to God."

Authorities told the AP that only two were injured, suffering from minor smoke inhalation. They declined medical attention.

The AP reported that the fire spread across 3,500 acres and as of early Saturday, was only 5 percent contained.

In the San Gabriel Mountains Friday, a forest fire led to the evacuation of hundreds of campers. U.S. Forest Service spokesman David Cruz told the AP the fire had engulfed at least 25 acres of timber late Friday.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Diane Hecht told the AP that 90 members of a Girl Scouts troop were bused out of a campground in Wrightwood and said up to 300 campers were evacuated from another campground in the area.

The AP said there is currently a severe drought in California, and wildfires are common, even near freeways. But it is unusual for vehicles to be engulfed in these flames.

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