Environment & Science

Blue Cut Fire: Highway 15 opens and some evacuations are lifted as fire expands

Resident of Wrightwood Nancy Martinez watches the smoke plume from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood from the pacific crest, lone pine area.
Resident of Wrightwood Nancy Martinez watches the smoke plume from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood from the pacific crest, lone pine area.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Resident of Wrightwood Nancy Martinez watches the smoke plume from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood from the pacific crest, lone pine area.
The Blue Cut Fire exhibiting heavy fire behavior off Highway 138 on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 17, 2016.
Stuart Palley
Resident of Wrightwood Nancy Martinez watches the smoke plume from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood from the pacific crest, lone pine area.
A firefighter watches for fire flare ups on a Joshua Tree near a home off Highway 138 at the Blue Cut Fire on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.
Stuart Palley
Resident of Wrightwood Nancy Martinez watches the smoke plume from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood from the pacific crest, lone pine area.
Doris Dodee anxiously awaits to be reunited with her 82-year-old husband, Glen Huffman, at a Red Cross evacuation center at the Jessie Turner Community Center on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 17, 2016. Her husband flagged down a sheriff to help him get out of the area.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Resident of Wrightwood Nancy Martinez watches the smoke plume from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood from the pacific crest, lone pine area.
Joshua Trees burn off Highway 138 as the Blue Cut Fire burns on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 17, 2016.
Stuart Palley
Resident of Wrightwood Nancy Martinez watches the smoke plume from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood from the pacific crest, lone pine area.
A Beverly Hills fire engine provides structure defense near a home off Highway 138 as the Blue Cut Fire burns on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 17, 2016.
Stuart Palley


Listen to story

00:57
Download this story 0MB

A ferocious wildfire has swallowed up many homes as it spread across nearly 50 square miles of mountain and desert east of Los Angeles.

Northbound and southbound lanes of the 15 Freeway were open Thursday, though ramps through the Cajon Pass area remain closed. Some mandatory evacuations have been lifted for residents in Hesperia.

This story is no longer being updated. You can see Friday's updates here

Evacuations | Road closures | School closures | Power outages

Fire Tracker: Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County

Updates

Update 6:47 p.m. Some mandatory evacuations lifted for areas west of the I-15

Evacuations have been lifted for residents west of I-15 to Baldy Mesa Road, south of Phelan Road to Whitehaven Street and Prairie Trail, fire information public information officer Michael Lopez told KPCC.

The north and southbound Oak Hills off-ramps were also set to reopen, according to a press release from the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department.

The Sheriff's Department thanked everyone who evacuated and welcomed home those who would be able to return, in their press release.

"The Blue Cut Fire is burning very aggressively and at one time posed a real danger to residents living in these areas," the release stated. "We ask that residents returning to the evacuation zone exercise caution. Firefighters, engines, and heavy equipment continue to operate in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff will continue enhanced patrols through these areas with additional units."

Thousands of residents still remain under mandatory evacuation orders.

Update 4:52 p.m.: Red flag alert: Strong winds expected to push southeast

Strong winds and low humidity have prompted the National Weather Service to extend their red flag warning for Southern California until 9 p.m. Friday. 

“Right now we have strong, gusty southwesterly winds for both Ventura and Los Angeles counties,” meteorologist Kathy Hoxsie, who works for the service, told KPCC. 

Peak gusts are expected to be 30 to 40 mph in the mountains, she said. Humidity is very low in foothill areas of the Antelope Valley. 

Thursday's warning is for Ventura and L.A. counties but right now there is elevated fire danger for most other interior areas as well, Hoxsie said. 

“For Southern California, we’re just kind of approaching the beginning of when it typically gets the worst.” 

Red flag warnings are issued for when weather conditions are expected to create extreme fire danger.

 — KPCC staff

Update 3:39 p.m. 3 suspects arrested for attempted looting, including grand theft auto

Three suspects have been arrested for attempted looting in the Blue Cut Fire evacuation areas, according to a release from the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department. They face charges of looting and grand theft auto.

Deputies responded Thursday morning at 7 a.m. to a call about people who seemed suspicious at a home in the evacuation area. They were trying to leave with a flatbed truck and told deputies they were picking up property for a friend who lived there.

Deputies then contacted the property owner who said he hadn't given anyone permission to take his property. The suspects were then taken into custody.

The there people arrested were Daniel Mervine, 27, of Jurupa; Natasha Rovinsky, 27, of Diamond Bar; and Trevor Sanchez, 29, of Riverside.

Update 1:09 p.m.: Evacuations lifted for southern portion of Hesperia

Mandatory evacuations were lifted Thursday for residents of the southern tip of Hesperia between Interstate 15 and Summit Valley Road south of Ranchero Road, the San Bernardino County Sheriff announced. 

The department asked returning residents to be cautious of fire vehicles and heavy equipment that continues to operate in the area, and offered tips for those returning home.  

You can see the rough outline of the affected area below. 

An approximate map of known evacuation zones due to the Blue Cut Fire, and areas where evacuations orders have been lifted as of Thursday evening.
An approximate map of known evacuation zones due to the Blue Cut Fire, and areas where evacuations orders have been lifted as of Thursday evening.

Update 11:05 a.m.: How the drought is creating more explosive fires

The drought has had a definite impact on firefighting efforts in California, with a diminished water supply, extreme temperatures and withering dryness both damaging the environment and posing ever greater challenges to firefighters, according to Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at UC Irvine.

"It's difficult enough when it's 80 degrees outside to wear those firefighter suits, but, you know, when it gets up to be 100, 110 degrees and you're in close proximity to a fire, it's extremely challenging. It's mentally and physically exhausting," Famiglietti told Take Two.

Famiglietti said their research shows the state is still 12 trillion gallons below normal conditions for this time of year.

That low water level combined with extreme heat and dryness have desiccated the timber and grass, creating tinderbox conditions, he said.

"In really dry conditions, sparks tend to travel much more easily, and that leads to an explosiveness in the fires that we haven't seen before, and I think puts our firefighters at greater risk than we've seen in the past," Famiglietti said.

More bad news: with climate change, the frequency and intensity of the drought are only expected to get worse, he said.

Update 8:18 a.m.: Local café owner remains behind to help firefighters

As the Blue Cut Fire continued to burn almost out of control on Thursday, expanding overnight to more than 31,600 acres, some people in evacuation areas were sticking it out.

Leo Hordyck, who runs the Grizzly Café in Wrightwood, has remained behind to help feed firefighters and law enforcement officers who have been helping to protect the city.

"The staffing is so thin these folks are not getting the food and nourishment, so we're opening up for about four hours to serve hamburgers and cold sandwiches and get them out on the front line," Hordyck told KPCC.

Hordyck said it was the fourth time he had faced the threat of fire near Wrightwood and that he so far felt safe. His house was toward the center of town, but the fire has been burning on the eastern flank.

Most of Hordyck's neighbors have left, he said, and he and his wife were up until midnight keeping watch on the fire.

He said the wind was still in "good shape and it still continues to go north."

— KPCC staff

6 a.m.: Destruction, uncertainty for homeowners

Exactly how many homes have been destroyed in the wildfire burning in Southern California's Cajon Pass, and to whom they belonged, remained uncertain Thursday, as the fire grew to nearly 50 square miles.

Acreage on the Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County was downgraded to about 25,000 on Wednesday afternoon, but by Thursday morning Cal Fire was reporting it had grown to 31,689 acres.

Firefighters were faced with the difficult task of tallying that damage while still battling the huge, unruly blaze.

That left evacuees in a cruel limbo, forced to spend another night wondering whether anything they owned was still intact.

They included Shawn Brady, who had been told by a neighbor that flames had raged down their street. But he was waiting for official word.

"What I've been told is that flames are currently ripping through my house," said Brady, a dockworker who lives on the outskirts of the evacuated town of Wrightwood with his mother, sister and a dog.

"I'm trying to remain optimistic," Brady said as he sat outside a shelter for evacuees in Fontana. "It's the not knowing that's the worst."

San Bernardino County fire officials could only confirm that dozens of structures had burned, and that big numbers are likely.

"There will be a lot of families that come home to nothing," county Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said Wednesday after flying over a fire scene he described as "devastating."

"It hit hard. It hit fast. It hit with an intensity that we hadn't seen before," he said.

Firefighters had at least established a foothold of control of the blaze the day after it broke out for unknown reasons in the Cajon Pass near Interstate 15, the vital artery between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The fire was 4 percent contained on Wednesday.

The California Highway Patrol reopened the northbound I-15 late Wednesday night, while the southbound side remained closed.

Those assessing damage were also looking for dead and injured, but none had been reported yet. Cadaver dogs were searching the ruins for anyone who was overrun by the flames.

Five years of drought have turned the state's wildlands into a tinder box, with eight fires currently burning from Shasta County in the far north to Camp Pendleton just north of San Diego.

Residents like Vi Delgado and her daughter April Christy were also among those wondering whether their home was intact, though they had found out that their pets and the shelter animals they take care of had been saved. They had been through earlierwildfires, but nothing like this one.

"No joke, we were literally being chased by the fire," Christy said in a voice choked with emotion in a minivan outside the Fontana evacuation center. "You've got flames on the side of you. You've got flames behind you."

More than 34,000 homes and about 82,000 people were under evacuation warnings as firefighters concentrated their efforts on saving homes in the mountain communities of Lytle Creek, Wrightwood and Phelan. They implored residents not to think twice if told to leave, but it appears many were staying.

"From reports that we were hearing, possibly up to half didn't leave," said Lyn Sieliet, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.

"It does change the way that we can fight fire," she added, "Now we have to worry about the people in there as well as trying to protect the structures and trying to build a line of defense as the fire comes toward that area."

A fleet of 10 air tankers and 15 helicopters and an army of 1,500 firefighters took on the blaze, many of them coming fresh from other wildfires around the state.

Another large fire, north of San Francisco, was fading. The 6-square-mile blaze was 50 percent contained after destroying 268 structures, including 175 homes and eight businesses, in the working-class community of Lower Lake over the weekend.

Damin Pashilk, 40, is charged with starting the blaze along with more than a dozen other counts of arson and one of attempted arson in connection with fires dating back to July 2015. He appeared in court on Wednesday, but he did not enter a plea.

— Associated Press reporters Christopher Weber and Christine Armario. AP writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed.

Evacuations

The following areas are under mandatory evacuation orders:

Shelters remain open at the Jessie Turner Community Center in Fontana and Sultana High School in Hesperia.

Small animals can be taken to the Apple Valley Animal Shelter in Apple Valley. Large animals can be sheltered at the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds in Victorville. Both large and small animals can be temporarily put up at the Devore Animal Shelter in San Bernardino.

The U-Haul Company of San Bernardino has offered 30 days of free self-storage, U-Box container usage and RV storage to residents who have been evacuated from their homes or need to move their things away from the fire. 

The company said those interested should contact one of the following locations:

Nearly 160 evacuees have been staying at the Jessie Turner Community Center in Fontana, according to Larry Fortmuller, volunteer and public information officer for the Red Cross of Orange County.

Many of those residents go to their jobs during the day, so the numbers tend to fluctuate, but people are “glued to the TV all day long” trying to get the latest information, Fortmuller told Take Two.

Fortmuller described the mood as stressful. Some of the evacuees may already know their home is lost, while others are still waiting to find out.

Red Cross has provided both medical and mental health services to assist evacuees, but information hasn’t always been readily available.

“This has been a fire that there’s been a difficulty getting detailed information,” Fortmuller said.

On-site representatives from the fire department were prepared to give information out, but with containment on the fire still low, there hasn’t been much to share, he said.

Fortmuller said the Red Cross was doing everything it could to help make evacuees more comfortable. In addition to the health services, he said they were encouraging residents to register online with Safe and Well, a system that allows them to share their whereabouts and situation with relatives who may live far away or otherwise not be able to reach them.

Some residents have found comfort in spending time with their pets.

Though the community center is open only to service animals, “a group of evacuees goes and picks up their pets and brings them back here and they hang out outside in the shade and have a small pet community going on outside each day. So that’s, of course, another comfort for those folks,” Fortmuller said.

Road closures

The northbound and southbound I-15 reopened in both directions, between Oakhill Road and the 15/215 split north of San Bernardino, Caltrans spokesperson Shelli Lombardo told KPCC. However, all of the ramps in that area remain closed, as does the State Route 138 connector.

Caltrans is urging people to be prepared for serious traffic and to go slow due to emergency vehicles continuing to be in the area. They also want people to reduce their speeds going through the area, particularly from Oak Hill to the Devore split.

"'Cause they want to go. They've been waiting a long time. And we understand that they want to go, but we're asking them to be patient, reduce their speed, because of the emergency vehicles that are still in there," Lombardo said.

One lane also remains closed on the southbound I-15 between Oak Hill Road and Kenwood. The southbound side also had some of its guard rail burned out, which has been replaced by K-rail, Lombardo said.

"It's fine to go through. It's going to be congested, of course, because there's going to be a lot of people that sheltered in place up in the Victor Valley area, so there's going to be a lot of traffic on the 15, and it's going to take a while for that traffic to recover," Lombardo said.

Lombardo said there was no recommended speed people should be going, but to be aware and "take it easy going down the pass."

The northbound side reopened Wednesday night between about 10:45 p.m. and 11 p.m., and the southbound side reopened late Thursday morning. Both fire and law enforcement officials gave Caltrans the go-ahead to reopen the freeway.

The following closures remain in effect:

Authorities have advised oversized and extra long vehicles to avoid using state routes 18 or 138 and other mountain roads because of the heavy traffic in those areas.

School closures:

The following schools and districts were closed on Thursday:

Hesperia and Snowline unified school districts were both closed for the rest of the week.

San Bernardino City Unified School District bus operations are closed in the Devore area.​

Power outages

Southern California Edison meanwhile said 957 homes and businesses are without power in Hesperia, Lytle Creek, Oak Hills, Phelan, Rancho Cucamonga, Pinon Hills, Victorville and a number of communities in unincorporated San Bernardino County.

A snapped telephone pole in the aftermath of the Blue Cut Fire that burned tens of thousands of acres in San Bernardino County.
A snapped telephone pole in the aftermath of the Blue Cut Fire that burned tens of thousands of acres in San Bernardino County.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

The power company said 300 power poles have been burned in the areas impacted by the Blue Cut Fire.

Edison also said it is also working to restore power to water pumping stations in the Cajon Pass and to ensure that power lines are not blocking the I-15 Freeway or the four rail lines that go through the pass.

“We are preparing two different staging areas in the area of the fire, where we’re bringing in materials like poles and wires, transformers, so as soon as we get the go-ahead our crews can get to work.” 

Around mid-day Thursday, crews were granted access to certain areas to start their damage assessment. 

This story has been updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the area of bus operations impacted in the San Bernardino City Unified School District. KPCC regrets the error.