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Cajon Pass Wildfire Destroys 3 Homes, Chars 6,200 Acres

Blaze: Officials report 30% containment but see signs that it is no longer out of control. California 138 remains closed.

June 28, 2002|TINA DIRMAN and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A wildfire that blackened more than 6,200 acres and destroyed three homes and two outbuildings in rugged Cajon Pass backcountry showed signs of subsiding late Thursday, as winds calmed and once-towering flames began to recede.

The blaze was 30% contained by 9:30 p.m., "and it's looking pretty good," said Jolene Sassano, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. Few visible flames could be seen by the late evening, although fire crews continued to scour for hot spots, she said.

The fire had forced the closures of Interstate 15 and California 138 after it started Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, California 138 remained closed between Mormon Rocks and Interstate 15, but Interstate 15 reopened.

The Forest Service marshaled more than 1,400 firefighters, 196 fire engines, six bulldozers, eight air tankers and 10 water-dropping helicopters to fight the blaze.

There were no reports of injuries. But Carol Beckley, another spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said residents of isolated ranch homes in the Cajon Valley had been ordered to evacuate earlier Thursday and weren't allowed back by nightfall.

About a dozen evacuees took refuge at an American Red Cross center in Phelan, a Mojave Desert community about eight miles northwest of the fire.

Arnold and Diann Fulp, who live beside California 138 in the west Cajon Valley, said they left their home about 8 p.m. Wednesday, returned about 2:15 a.m. Thursday when the fire seemed to be turning away, and then left again that afternoon when the flames headed toward them a second time.

"I thought, 'No. We just got home. How can this be?' " Diann Fulp said. "Then, all of a sudden, the fire burst over that last ridge and boy, we didn't hesitate. We took off."

Raul and Barbara Aguilera live with their cat, Cuddlebug, in a small tent beside their car in the Lost Lake area. Firefighters warned them to get out Wednesday night as a wall of flames advanced on the campground.

"It's off the map, now," Raul Aguilera said. "It's gone."

The blaze apparently was started by a car fire Wednesday afternoon on the shoulder of Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass.

Flames spread quickly, forcing the closure of Interstate 15, the principal route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Freight traffic was halted on rail lines operated by the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The flames damaged major power lines, cutting off electricity to about 450,000 customers in San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties.

By 8 a.m. Thursday, the fire had moved north and west, away from the pass. Interstate 15 reopened, rail traffic resumed and power was restored to all but a few customers. But the advancing flames halted traffic on California 138, which links the Cajon Pass and the Antelope Valley, and Beckley said several homes were threatened in Swarthout and Lone Pine canyons.

By evening, the fire was at least five miles from Wrightwood and posed no immediate threat to the community, Beckley said. A town meeting was held Thursday night at the Wrightwood Community Building to reassure residents and update them on the fire.

Officials said the blaze is known as the Louisiana Fire, not because of any geographical ties but because the Forest Service this year is naming fires in the San Bernardino National Forest after states. The list is alphabetical; this is the 12th fire this year.

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