Fire Chars 30,000 Acres in SoCal’s Cajon Pass

LYTLE CREEK, Calif. ( Los Angeles Times/TNS) -
A U.S. Forest Service Hand crew looks for routes to aid in battling a wildfire near Highway 138 and Interstate 15 near Cajon Pass on Tuesday. (James Quigg/The Daily Press via AP)
A U.S. Forest Service Hand crew looks for routes to aid in battling a wildfire near Highway 138 and Interstate 15 near Cajon Pass on Tuesday. (James Quigg/The Daily Press via AP)

An explosive brush fire that has ripped through more than 30,000 acres of hills, canyons and flatlands in Southern California’s Cajon Pass has bewildered veteran firefighters, who fear the flames will only worsen.

“It hit hard, it hit fast — it hit with an intensity that we haven’t seen before,” San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said.

With the Blue Cut fire heading in several directions since it broke out Tuesday morning, more than 80,000 people in rural San Bernardino County communities have been forced to flee. An unknown number of homes were destroyed, and there is no containment in sight.

Firefighters have been put on the defense, and officials are bracing for an immense tally of devastation from flames fed by strong winds, dehydrated tinder and triple-digit heat.

“There will be a lot of families that will come home to nothing,” Hartwig warned.

Flames erupt on a hillside along one of the main rail routes connecting SoCal with points north and east. (Doug Saunders/The Sun via AP)
Flames erupt on a hillside along one of the main rail routes connecting SoCal with points north and east. (Doug Saunders/The Sun via AP)

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service said assessment teams and cadaver dogs would be sent to homes and structures along Highway 138.

“The fire came so quickly,” Chon Bribiescas said. “We want to make sure nobody was left behind.”

Early Wednesday, Capt. Howard Deets and the Mill Creek hotshots monitored the battle against a blaze that was consuming a hill off of Cajon Boulevard.

Crews on the ground cleared brush and laid hoses as flames flared along the ridge.

It’s been 13 years since the area was struck by fire, leaving the hills and mountains a mix of dead brush and new growth.

Still, conditions were ripe for a fast-moving fire.

“It all aligned. The wind, the fuel and the topography,” Deets said. “When that happens there’s nothing you can do about it. You could throw the world’s firefighting resources at it and it’s just going to keep going.”

Smoke envelops Highway 138 at Hess Rd in Phelan, Calif., as firefighters prepare to battle a wildfire spreading through San Bernardino County. (AP Photo/Rick McClure)2
Smoke envelops Highway 138 at Hess Rd in Phelan, Calif., as firefighters prepare to battle a wildfire spreading through San Bernardino County. (AP Photo/Rick McClure)2

The Cajon Pass acts as a wind tunnel, funneling winds that raced up to 30 miles per hour and helping the blaze jump Interstate 15, said Michael Wakoski, battalion chief at the San Bernardino County Fire Department and the incident commander of the Blue Cut fire.

Wakoski said crews were battling flames in terrain so rugged it resembled crumpled paper, and that it has been nearly impossible to navigate the steep slopes.

Six county firefighters were trapped Tuesday by walls of flame while defending homes and evacuating residents in Swarthout Canyon, officials said. They were treated for minor injuries and have resumed battling the wildfire. No other injuries have been reported.

Residents in several communities, including the entire ski resort town of Wrightwood, were forced to flee as the fire spread in several directions. It closed the 15 Freeway and Highway 138 — the two key routes in the area — clogging traffic and making it more difficult for residents to evacuate.

In addition to Wrightwood, mandatory evacuations have been ordered for Baldy Mesa, Lytle Creek, Old Cajon Road, Lone Pine Canyon, West Cajon Valley and Swarthout Canyon, fire officials said.

Authorities initially raced door to door, urging residents to evacuate parts of Lytle Creek Canyon.

The blaze is the latest in a series of destructive wildfires to hit California as the state endures its fifth year of drought. The fires this year have claimed hundreds of homes and killed eight people, but officials warn the worst might be still to come because Southern California’s traditional fire season doesn’t begin until fall, when the hot Santa Ana winds typically arrive.

Officials blame the drought — which has left brush dangerously dry — for helping fuel the fires, which have stretched from Lake County in Northern California to the border region in San Diego County. In some areas, the fires have also been fueled by millions of dead or dying trees in forests.

The fires are a sort of “new normal,” said Char Miller, an expert on wildfires and national forests at Pomona College.

“We’re in the fifth year of drought and we’re starting to see the consequences of that,” Miller said.