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Cajon Pass Blaze Closes I-15, 138

Wildfire: Residents are evacuated as the flames strand motorists, destroy at least two homes and consume more than 5,000 acres of brush.

June 27, 2002|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A wildfire raced across more than 5,500 acres in the Cajon Pass on Wednesday, closing down two highways in both directions, forcing evacuations, consuming buildings, stranding motorists, and cutting power to 463,000 homes and businesses.

Authorities said they believe that a roadside car fire had ignited the brush at 4:15 p.m. By 11:30 p.m, it had consumed at least two homes, two outbuildings and a trailer, and closed Interstate 15, the main artery between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and California 138. No containment was in sight.

Communities in nearby Swarthout Canyon were evacuated, as four helicopters, 12 air tankers and hundreds of firefighters battled the flames.

Cars and trucks near the flames inched away from the fire. Some drivers made U-turns and drove off the wrong way, "trying to bail out as quick as they can," said Meg McDonald, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Freight traffic stopped on nearby rail lines operated by Union Pacific and Burlington Santa Fe.

The crew of a Union Pacific train headed to Colton from Ogden, Utah, was trapped briefly as flames burned within 10 yards of the cars, said Mike Furtney, a Union Pacific official. At first, crew members were told to get off the train and wait for fire crews to pick them up. But firefighters couldn't get through to the men, Furtney said, so they returned to the train to move out.

"We had four carloads of propane at the end of the train, so it was a hairy few minutes," Furtney said. "It was a close call, but everybody was able to get out safe."

He said the rail closure would have a significant impact on a route traversed by as many as 60 trains a day.

"It's a very busy route," Furtney said.

The flames damaged transmission lines and shut off power to areas from Redlands to San Dimas and Santa Ana.

Electricity was restored to all but a few homes and businesses within a few hours.

There were no early reports of injuries. The blaze occurred in virtually the same area where a fire roared across 7,000 acres two weeks ago and cost $2.6 million to suppress.

Fire investigators said that fire was deliberately set.

Wednesday's fire began on the east side of I-15 near Pitman Canyon, where a car was seen "engulfed" in flames, McDonald said. It soon jumped the freeway.

Another brush fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in Laguna Canyon and burned about 80 acres, officials said.

The fire was ignited about 1 p.m. when a spark created by heavy equipment striking a rock lighted the brush, said Dennis Shell of the Orange County Fire Authority.

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