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Cajon Pass fire grows to 800 acres; southbound lanes of I-15 still closed [Updated]

September 2, 2011 |  5:53 pm


A brush fire along the Cajon Pass has grown to about 800 acres, with mandatory evacuations still in effect in some areas while the southbound lanes of Interstate 15 are expected to remain closed until at least Saturday morning, officials said.

Three northbound lanes of the interstate have reopened, but one remains closed until further notice, officials said. Motorists are advised to use alternative routes and avoid the pass.    167656.ME.0902.CajonFire.002.LS

About 200 firefighters, assisted by 18 aircraft, including a DC-10, were battling the blaze, said Bob Poole, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. Crews from the U.S. Forest Service, the San Bernardino County Fire Department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were among those assisting in the fight, he said.

One structure has been damaged by the fire, but Poole said he didn’t yet know whether it was a home or an outbuilding.

Motorist Joe Bell, 29, was traveling with his wife Heather, 22, their newborn baby, his mother-in-law and sister-in-law. He said they left their home in Provo, Utah, about 6:30 a.m., headed for his cousin’s wedding in Newport Beach.

But when their Dodge Durango hit Hesperia, it ground to a halt before bumper-to-bumper traffic on the southbound I-15.

“We got off in Hesperia, and there were no detour signs,” Bell said. “People were going in two different directions, so we just took one of them.” 

That was the beginning of a journey to a gas station less than 20 miles away that took over three hours. The family made their way up a winding road several miles before meeting a roadblock, where they were told to turn back.

They ended up passing a spot fire that had broken out about 100 feet from the road before ending up at the junction of Highway 138 and the I-15.
“That’s the worst experience I’ve ever been in driving a car,” Bell said. “No one told us where to go. It was unbelievable.”

The silver lining was that his cousin’s wedding is Saturday, so there was no danger of missing it, no matter how horrible the traffic was.   

Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for Jenny Street between Columbine and Braceo in Hesperia, and for residents west of Caliente and east of Baldy Mesa Road, south of Joshua to the top of the Cajon Pass in Oak Hills.

An evacuation center has been set up at Baldy Mesa Elementary School, 10376 Baldy Mesa Road, between Avenal Street and Bonanza Road.

Brandt Maxwell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the good news is that the winds have not been strong and could decrease slightly over the weekend

“Wind speeds as a whole will be moderate, and it’s usually when you get the strong winds that the fire danger is very high,” he said.

Maxwell added that while humidity levels will remain relatively low over the weekend, that could improve a bit in the next few days.

[Updated, 6:30 p.m.: Fred Pena, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said that one injured firefighter was evacuated, but he said that he did not have any details about the severity of the injury. About 750 firefighters and other crews were battling the blaze, with the help of 13 air tankers, including a DC-10, and five helicopters.

The fire was reported about 12:40 p.m. and the cause remains under investigation.

The fire has moved from Forest Service to private land, and firefighters are focused on protecting homes and other structures. About 800 homes are in the fire zone, but Pena said none are imminently threatened by the flames.

“We have a large structure protection in place. We’re not concerned with the vegetation fire, we’re concerned with protecting actual structures,” he said. “Our main priority is life and property.”]


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-- Phil Willon at the Cajon Pass and Hector Becerra in Los Angeles

Photos: A DC-10 makes a drop on the Cajon Pass fire, top. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times. Right: Traffic is stopped on northbound Interstate 15. Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times