A brush fire exploded out of control Tuesday in the Cajon Pass, scorching 18,000 acres as walls of flame forced more than 80,000 people to evacuate and destroyed an unknown number of homes in several rural San Bernardino County communities.
Fed by strong winds, bone-dry brush and 100-degree temperatures, the Blue Cut fire marched across hills, canyons and flatlands into the night asfirefighters struggled to get a handle on a blaze they fear will get worse.
Residents in several communities — including the entire ski resort town of Wrightwood — were forced to flee as the fire spread in several different directions. It closed Interstate 15 and Highway 138 — the two key routes in the area — clogging traffic and making it more difficult for residents to evacuate.
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 forest areas.
The Blue Cut fire was first reported just after 10:30 a.m. near Interstate 15 and jumped to nearly 1,500 acres in size within just two hours. As the fire continued to surge late Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County.
Homes could be seen burning along Highway 138 and television footage showed flames creeping toward a McDonald’s and surrounding a large cross.
“We know that we’ve lost structures, it’s unknown how many at this time,” said Tracey Martinez, public information officer for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. “This fire is still raging out of control.”
Six county firefighters became entrapped by walls of flame while defending homes and evacuating residents in Swarthout Canyon, Martinez said. The firefighters were able to take shelter in a nearby structure, but two had to be treated for minor injuries, she said. Both firefighters were released and have resumed battling the wildfire.
In addition to Wrightwood, mandatory evacuations have been ordered for Baldy Mesa, Lytle Creek, Wrightwood, Old Cajon Road, Lone Pine Canyon, West Cajon Valley and Swarthout Canyon, fire officials said.
San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies raced door-to-door, urging residents to evacuate parts of Lytle Creek Canyon on Tuesday afternoon. A visit from a deputy prompted Ellen Pollema, 63, and her husband to flee their home in Happy Jack on Tuesday. The couple quickly packed their cars and fled to a nearby ranger station, An hour later, Pollema sat in a Prius stuffed with pillows, blankets, clothes and a cat nestled in its carrier. Her husband was parked nearby in a sport utility vehicle with the couple’s three dogs.
Tuesday was far from the couple’s first evacuation. Pollema and her husband have lived in the area for 25 years, and were not surprised by the blaze’s rapid growth.
“It’s part of living in this canyon,” she said. “It went fast. But it’s very dry.”
Pollema said she has worked with several of her neighbors to ensure that their properties are cleared of brush and anything else that could make their homes more flammable.
“People need to be prepared and just know that that’s part of the risk of living in these kinds of areas,” she said. “We’ve got a beautiful community.”
Farther up the road, Lytle Creek resident Joe Gonzales was gathering laptops and important papers after deputies asked him to leave. While he was ready to flee, Gonzales said he wanted to wait until deputies checked on an elderly neighbor who might need a ride out of the area.
“I’m a little worried. I don’t want to leave here. We love it in the canyon,” he said. “But that smoke looks pretty bad.”
Others were taking a wait-and-see approach as they watched a helicopter swoop down to draw water from a lake and fly toward the advancing fire near Lytle Creek Road and Alder Way. Steve Sager, 53, was packed and ready to go, but had decided to keep an eye on the fire before choosing whether or not to flee as he sat alongside several neighbors on a stone fence.
“It’s kind of like a mild tailgate party,” he said. “As long as they can keep it on that ridge we’ll be OK. If it comes over that ridge too far, I’m out of here.”
Cheryl Anaya, 67, had chosen to stay behind to try to protect her two-story log cabin in case flying embers descended on the wood frame building. She’d done the same during a previous wildfire in north Fontana several years earlier.
“We’re gonna stay and fight,” she told one neighbor who was heading for the nearest highway.
But with the Blue Cut fire rapidly growing in size, Anaya accepted that she too might have to race out of the area if the flames got too close.
At least 700 firefighters, 57 engines, 8 fire crews and 10 air tankers were on the scene as of 3 p.m., said Cathleen Mattingly of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who added that the fire was burning through “heavy, dry brush.” An additional 750 firefighters have been ordered to the scene, San Bernardino National Forest officials reported on Twitter.
It was not immediately clear if the fire was surging toward more residential areas or out into the desert. Mattingly said winds were moving northwest on Tuesday afternoon, but warned that could shift quickly.
Authorities shut down the 15 Freeway from Oak Hill Road to Kenwood Avenue, forest officials said. California 138 is closed from California 2 to the 15. The 15 is the major thoroughfare for drivers headed to Las Vegas from Southern California.
Temperatures in San Bernardino rose into triple-digits on Tuesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. A high of 99 is expected Wednesday, with southwest wind gusts of up to 10 miles per hour expected in the afternoon.
The blaze erupted as crews battled another major fire in Northern California, where the Clayton fire had ripped through 4,000 acres in Lake County, nearly obliterating entire neighborhoods and causing thousands to flee. A 40-year-old man was charged with arson in connection with the blaze late Monday, police said.
Esquivel reported from Lytle Creek. Parvini and Queally reported from Los Angeles. Times staff photographer Gina Ferrarzi contributed to this report from Phelan.
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10:35 p.m.: This article was updated with the fire’s growth to 18,000 acres.
8:30 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the fire growing to 15,000 acres.
7:35 p.m.: This article was updated with information about a state of emergency being declared.
5:40 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the number of residents evacuated from the area.
5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information from residents near the scene of the fire.
5:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information from fire officials.
3:50 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from residents who had evacuated the area.
3:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the size of the fire and the amount of firefighters responding.
2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.
2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with information about damaged buildings and injuries to firefighters.
1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.
This article was originally published at 1:15 p.m.