North Fire sets cars on fire in Cajon Pass; 20 cars, 4 structures destroyed

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A brush fire spread rapidly and jumped the 15 Freeway near the Cajon Pass, setting over a dozen vehicles on fire. Firefighters say they'll be working overnight to attempt to contain the blaze, which burned at least four nearby structures Friday. 

Read Saturday's updates on the North Fire here.

Two southbound lanes of 15 Freeway were in use again by Friday night, but between 10 and 15 burned vehicles remained clustered on the northbound lanes, preventing them from being reopened. The California Highway Patrol says it will be working late into the night to get freeway access restored.

KPCC Fire Tracker updates | Social media reaction | Evacuation map

Updates

Update 8:03 p.m. 4 structures destroyed; updated evacuation map

Four structures have been destroyed by the North Fire, according to the San Bernardino National Forest Service. Several vehicles caught fire on Interstate 15 when the fire crossed southbound lanes, according to the Forest Service, eventually destroying 20 vehicles and damaging 10 others.

An evacuation center for residents has been opened at Serrano High School. Animals can be taken to the Victor Valley Fairgrounds.

An official evacuation map was released, which you can view below:

Update 6:39 p.m. 20 vehicles destroyed; no serious injuries; eyewitnesses describe scene

Twenty vehicles were destroyed. Dozens of vehicles were abandoned and hundreds of others turned onto side roads to get away from the flames as water-dropping helicopters flew over the Cajon Pass area about 55 miles northeast of Los Angeles. There were no reports of serious injuries, authorities said, and two minor injuries to motorists who were treated at the scene, NBC L.A. reports.

Motorists stuck on the road described a harrowing scene.

"It's crazy, you're watching black clouds and white clouds of smoke, there's a ridgeline off to my right ... and it looks like any second flames will come over the ridgeline," Chris Patterson, 43, told the Associated Press from his vehicle.

It's not uncommon for wildfires to reach freeways in California. It was unclear, however, why dozens of cars were caught along Interstate 15, forcing frightened people to flee on foot.

Melissa Atalla told the AP she could see the flames from her gas station in Baldy Mesa.

"People are spectating from our parking lot, running around getting water and beer. It's chaos," Atalla said. "One man came in and said, 'Oh my, my house is getting burned.'"

California Highway Patrol spokesman Steve Carapia said 50 to 75 vehicles were left abandoned on the freeway.

Raquel Martinez, 34, was traveling to Las Vegas with her husband for the weekend when they got stuck in northbound traffic on the I-15 for about an hour.

The sky darkened to black. As they drove by, cars were covered in "pink powder" — or fire retardant. Cars meanwhile were being redirected up narrow twisty emergency lanes from the southbound side headed north.

"I haven't seen a fire that big and so close to us. It really was huge," Martinez told the AP.

The Associated Press with KPCC

For updates on the fire, see the KPCC Fire Tracker:

Fire Tracker

Update 6:07 p.m. Drone kept firefighting aircraft grounded earlier

Drones being reported over the fire led earlier to all fixed-wing firefighting aircraft being grounded, the U.S. Forest Service's Lee Beyer tells KPCC. The aircraft have since been able to fly into the area.

"We have structures threatened, we have vehicles that are burning, we have major freeways that are closed, and because of an individual or several individuals that are essentially flying a couple-hundred-dollar toy, we cannot go to work the way we should to save those vehicles or to save those structures," Beyer said.

Beyer called the situation "frustrating."

"[Fixed-wing aircraft are] not nearly as maneuverable as helicopters, so if something comes in front of them, they don't have the ability to turn very quickly. So for a safety precaution, they have to head out of the area and stay safe," Beyer said.

Beyer said that, similar to how a goose put down a commercial flight in New York several years ago, a similar thing could happen with a drone taking out an engine or damaging a wing.

"This has kind of been an ongoing issue. I believe this is the fourth fire we've had over the last roughly month now where we've had drones causing impacts to our firefighting efforts," Beyer said.

All of the aircraft were back up in the air as of shortly before 6 p.m., Beyer said. He said he did not know how long aircraft were grounded due to the drone.

"Any time we have to take one of our tools away and send it back to an airport because of safety, that means the fire's going to continue growing faster than it would have had we had that tool available," Beyer said.

Ashley Bailey with KPCC staff

Update 6 p.m. 2 lanes of northbound I-15 reopened

Southbound lanes of Highway 15 near the Cajon Pass remain closed as of 6 p.m., California Highway Patrol spokesman Steve Carapia said.

Around 15-20  burned vehicles remain blocking that lane, he added. Tow trucks are currently trying to move them off the roadway.

"There were several vehicles that were caught in the path of the fire and completely burned," Carapia said. "Right now fire personnel and CHP personnel are escorting people back to their vehicles, and those vehicles that are able to be driven away, they can do so."  

Carapia said it could take longer for the roads to fully reopen. He expects Caltrans will want to survey the area and make sure it's safe for motorists. It's unclear how long that could take.

"It's safe to say that it's going to go well into the night." he said.

KPCC staff

Update 5:49 p.m. Long night ahead for firefighters

Lee Beyer with the San Bernardino National Forest said it will be a long night for firefighters, as the fire is still rapidly expanding.

"It's just going to be all hands on deck," said Beyer. He added that firefighters will be assisted by fixed wing planes a DC-10 and night flights from helicopters.

KPCC staff

Update 5:32 p.m. 5 homes burning, 50 threatened

There are five homes confirmed burning, with 50 immediately threatened, according to the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

SBCOUNTYFIRE tweet

There is a public information line for the San Bernardino Forest Service for those seeking information about the fire at (909) 383-5688.

KPCC staff

Update 5:23 p.m. Mandatory evacuations in place for surrounding area

There are mandatory evacuations in place east of Sheep Creek Road, north of Highway 138, west of Highway 395 and Interstate 15 and south of Phelan Road. Here is the approximate evacuation area:

KPCC staff

3:47 p.m. There were up to 70 vehicles on the freeway in that area, the California Highway Patrol's Steve Carapia tells CNN. At least 10 vehicles were burned, KTLA reports.

"Normally, on a Friday afternoon, traffic is really heavy northbound in Cajon Pass, and it's been at a standstill since the fire started, and now southbound also is shut down, so people are not able to travel through Cajon Pass in either direction right now," Carol Underhill with the San Bernardino National Forest said.

The fire's also threatened multiple homes, forcing evacuations in areas east of Sheep Creek Road, north of I-15, west of I-15, and south of Phelan Road, San Bernardino National Forest officials tweeted.

"It started in Cajon Pass, burned uphill toward Baldy Mesa, which does have quite a few homes in that area. It's rural, so the homes are scattered, but there are homes in that area, so that's why they did the evacuation. It's a pretty large evacuation area," Underhill said.

There was no estimate how many people were affected by the evacuations, Underhill said. There were also no reported injuries.

The San Bernardino County Fire Department and the San Bernardino National Forest have five ambulances assisting, according to officials. Motorists on the 15 were asked not leave their vehicles, but the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department was on the scene helping to evacuate people from their vehicles, Underhill said.

"Await instructions from the sheriff. If you see the sheriff patrol car, or any other official vehicle, heed their instructions," Underhill said.

Officials have set up an evacuation center at Serrano High School in nearby Phelan for those evacuated from homes and the freeway.

Fire engines, ground crews, heavy helitankers and fixed wing tankers have been deployed to fight the fire include , Underhill said. Aircraft were also being called in from other areas, she said, including a DC-10, which can drop 10,000 gallons of fire retardant at once.

"We've done everything we can at this point, and will continue to do everything we can," Underhill said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, Underhill said. It's flames have been wind-driven, she said, and there is plenty of dry brush in the area to serve as fuel.

A drone that was flying in the area forced crews to abandon air drops, the Los Angeles Times reports. It's the third time in recent weeks that drones have grounded firefighters.

The San Bernardino National Forest is in unified command with San Bernardino County Fire, CALFIRE and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

We've also been collecting some of the harrowing images from the fire on social media, which you can see below:

Cajon Pass fire Storify

KPCC staff

This story has been updated.

With contributions from AP

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