Blue Cut Fire: Brown declares state of emergency as more than thousands are evacuated

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A wildfire erupted in the mountainous Cajon Pass area of Southern California and spread rapidly, prompting over 82,000 to evacuate Tuesday evening and closing stretches of major freeways in the area. 

The Blue Cut Fire started at 10:38 a.m. near Interstate 15 — the main highway to Las Vegas — off of Old Highway 66 and Blue Cut, San Bernardino County Fire spokesperson Eric Sherwin said. Flames made a run up a slope, and the wind carried embers over the highway, forcing officials to shut down portions of Highway 138  and both sides of I-15.

Video from the scene showed at least one home and several nearby structures ablaze. The region is under red flag warnings for high fire danger due to gusty winds and low humidity levels.

This story is no longer being updated. See Tuesday's story here

Evacuations | Road closures | School evacuations/closures | Air quality

Firetracker: Blue Cut Fire

Updates

Update 6:02 p.m. Gov. Brown declares state of emergency

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County late Tuesday afternoon due to the Blue Cut Fire. The declaration cites the fire's rapid growth and the evacuations it's caused, along with some of the danger its posed to firefighters.

A Federal Fire Management Assistance Grant has been requested and approved for the fire, according to the statement from the Governor's Office.

In one sign of the fire's growth, while giving information on Periscope, San Bernardino County Fire spokesperson Eric Sherwin noted that the fire had advanced several hundred yards during the broadcast that lasted less than 10 minutes. Sherwin brought the Periscope broadcast to a close.

Update 5:19 p.m. Firefighters escape fire: 2 injured, fire engine damaged

Six firefighters became entrapped while fighting the Blue Cut Fire, according to a press release from the San Bernardino County Fire Department. The firefighters sheltered in place in a nearby structure, though two firefighters sustained minor injuries. The firefighters suffered smoke inhalation, San Bernardino County Fire spokesperson Eric Sherwin said on Periscope.

The two firefighters were transported to a local hospital where they were treated and released before returning to defend structures. One County fire engine sustained moderate fire damage.

The firefighters were working on defending homes and assisting with evacuations in the Swarthout Canyon area west of Cajon Pass.

They were part of two San Bernardino County Fire engine companies assigned to the area northwest of Cajon Boulevard.

Video: Blue Cut Fire

Officials also encouraged residents to obey evacuation orders.

"An evacuation order can save your life, leave as soon as evacuations orders are given by fire and law enforcement officials to avoid being caught in fire, smoke or road congestion. Residents that refuse to evacuate put their own and other people’s lives at risk," the release states.

Update 3:24 p.m. Travelers hide out in hotel near fire

Craig Keith, 42, had just come into the L.A. area Monday night from Las Vegas to see friends, and was staying at the Best Western Cajon Pass when Tuesday’s fire broke out. 

“We were coming from Phelan back to the hotel, and we see smoke and we were like, ‘I hope that’s okay,’” he told KPCC.

But within a matter of minutes, the fire quickly mushroomed. “Next thing we know, it’s over 1,000 acres and we’re starting to panic a little bit. And the smoke just starts coming over like crazy,’” he said. 

At least 50 people were at the hotel at the time, in addition to workers from two nearby gas stations and a Del Taco, Keith said. Police arrived and gave them 20 minutes to evacuate. The only route out was northbound on the 15 Freeway, which Keith said was completely empty as of around 2 p.m. Tuesday. The southbound route, however, was backed up at least to Hesperia. 

“It’s kind of nuts, the adrenaline. It came when we were coming back to the hotel,” he said. “I haven’t been that scared in a while.”

Keith said he was heading back to Las Vegas, since the only way he could travel was north on the 15 Freeway.

“We got lucky that home is Vegas, so we’re going the right way,” he said. “But a lot of people aren’t.” 

Evacuations

There were 82,649 people were under mandatory evacuation as of an early evening update. Sheriff's officials have called for mandatory evacuations for:  

  • Wrightwood
  • Lytle Creek
  • The Cajon Valley area
  • North of Highway 138, south of Phelan road, east of Sheep Creek, west of Caliente
  • Between Highway 138 to the south, Ranchero Road to the north, extending east to Summit Valley Road
  • West Cajon Valley Highway 2 to the 15 Freeway
  • Baldy Mesa north of Phelan Road
  • The Lone Pine Canyon area
  • The Swarthout Canyon area
  • Interstate 15 east to Summit Valley Road, everything south of Ranchero
  • Bear Valley Road on the north, Highway 395 on the east and Caughlin Road on the West

See mandatory evacuation orders here, including directions for routes those under mandatory evacuations should take.

An approximate map of known evacuation zones from the Blue Cut Fire as of 3:45 p.m. Tuesday. This map does not include the Lone Pine Canyon area and the West Cajon Valley area which are also under mandatory evacuation orders.
An approximate map of known evacuation zones from the Blue Cut Fire as of 3:45 p.m. Tuesday. This map does not include the Lone Pine Canyon area and the West Cajon Valley area which are also under mandatory evacuation orders.

An emergency shelter has been set up at the Jessie Turner Community Center at 15556 Summit Ave. in Fontana. Another center has opened up at Sultana High School, located at 17311 Sultana Street in Hesperia. It was turned into an overnight shelter. We have information on what to do when preparing to evacuate here

The fire was reported Tuesday in a sparsely populated area, according to a San Bernardino County Fire Department spokeswoman.

"If it continues northbound, then it will get closer to the Wrightwood area," Bachman said. "It looks horrible. Horrible. And of course, that's how I go home, you know?"

Video

There are homes alongside the 15, but but they aren't visible from the freeway, Bachman said. Trains run right behind the homes.

The Devore Animal Shelter is accepting both small and large animals for evacuation areas south of the Cajon Pass, while those to the north can take large animals to the Victorville Fairgrounds, San Bernardino County chief of animal care and control Brian Cronin told KPCC. The Apple Valley Animal Shelter is accepting dogs and cats.

Many of the homes impacted by the fire can be described as small ranches, Cronin said.

“It’s not uncommon for residents in those areas to have horses, goats, a variety of livestock-type animals," Cronin said.

There were over 100 animals at the Victorville location so far as of late Tuesday afternoon, with animals still being brought in. The fire was moving away from the Devore shelter.

They were planning and preparing for evacuations for a couple more days, Cronin said.

There were between 25 and 30 horses, 15-plus goats, one steer and some other animals at the Victorville Fairgrounds, Geoff Rinds with the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds  told KPCC.

“We are lucky enough to have a fairly large-sized livestock department and area where we’re able to provide shelter in circumstances such as this for displaced animals," Rinds said.

The fairgrounds is 84 acres. Rinds said they currently have enough resources and supplies to care for the animals — unless they experience another surge of animal evacuations. They'll be accepting and caring for the animals for 24 hours a day until the evacuation orders have been lifted.

Road closures

The fire has sparked several road closures, including: 

  • Highway 138 between I-15 and the 2
  • Lone Pine Canyon Road closed at 138
  • Northbound 15 closed at 215
  • Southbound 15 closed at Bear Valley
  • Swarthout Canyon Road closed to Cajon Boulevard
  • Lone Pine Canyon closed between 138 and east Canyon

The closures of highways 15 and 138 have snarled traffic in the region. Caltrans tweeted that the eastbound 210 was backed up due to traffic where it connects with Highway 215. 

There are no alternate routes to recommend, Caltrans District 8's Shelli Lombardo told KPCC. 

"People that know the area are using the 18 and the 330 to go down the backside into Victorville and Hesperia," she added. "So they're already congested." 

The best bet, Lombardo said, would be to make alternate plans until the routes are open.

"I would say it would prudent to not put yourself on the freeways until it's all cleared," she said "The last thing you want to do is be sitting on a freeway in 106 degree temperatures with no food, no water, no shade."

During rush hour, Lombardo said she expects commuters will attempt to head home — only to find themselves sitting on the highway.

Still, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Cindy Bachman did offer alternate routes via Twitter: from the west end of the county, 210 westbound to the I-5, to Highway 14 into the desert. Another option: 10 eastbound to Highway 62, then take 62 into the high desert. Bachman also noted that San Bernardino mountain roads were gridlocked.

The Daily Press also has suggestions for alternate routes for commuters who use the 15 Freeway to get home. For residents who work in South Bay, Long Beach, downtown L.A. or the San Gabriel of San Fernando valleys, the paper suggests: 

Take the 210 Freeway west to the 5 north to the 14 north and then exit at Pearblossom Highway. Take Pearblossom east across the desert to Phelan Road, which later becomes Main Street in Hesperia.

The paper also has information for Cajon Pass commuters working in Riverside, San Bernardino, Ontario or Rancho Cucamonga.  

Cajon Pass is about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

School evacuations/closures

The local school district posted that several schools in the evacuation areas have been closed and their students moved to Serrano High School. According to the Snowline Joint Unified School District's website:  

  • Wrightwood ES students are being sent home due to mandatory evacuations in West Cajon Valley and voluntary evacuations in Wrightwood.  As of right now, students who are not picked up by 3:45 PM will be transported to Serrano High School.
  • Students who live in Wrightwood or West Cajon Valley and attend Serrano HS, Chaparral HS, Eagle Summit CDS, Pinon Mesa MS, and Pinon Hills ES will be sent to the Serrano HS gymnasium for parent pickup due to the road closures preventing buses from transporting such students.
  • All other schools will continue to operate as normal and their students will be transported as usual.

All students at Kimbark Elementary School were being transported to Cesar Chavez School at 6650 N Magnolia Avenue in San Bernardino, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Air quality

The South Coast Air Quality management District issued a smoke advisory for areas near the Blue Cut Fire, AQMD's Sam Atwood told KPCC. The advisory is for the Devore area, the central portion of the San Bernardino Mountains and potentially the central San Bernardino Valley, which includes San Bernardino and Fontana.

"Currently the winds are from the southwest, so most of the smoke is lofting up into the air or being carried up into the mountains and the high desert. So we're not experiencing, at this moment, severe impacts from the smoke in the highly populated areas," Atwood said.

Atwood advised residents who see or smell smoke to start taking precautions, including avoiding vigorous exercise and avoiding breathing in a significant amount of the pollutants from the smoke.

Tweet: NWS smoke alert

This story has been updated.

With contributions from Mike Roe, AP, Brianna Lee, and Paige Osburn

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