3,500-Acre North Fire in Cajon Pass Burns Homes and Vehicles, Shuts Down 15 Freeway

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A dangerous, fast-moving wildfire spread through the Cajon Pass on Friday, damaging several homes and threatening about 50 others after jumping the 15 Freeway and destroying some 20 vehicles stopped on the pavement.

A helicopter drops water on vehicles burning on the 15 Freeway during the North Fire on July 17, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

A helicopter drops water on vehicles burning on the 15 Freeway during the North Fire on July 17, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

The fire started about 2:30 p.m. off the freeway just north of State Route 138 (map), prompting the closure of all southbound and northbound lanes of the 15 Freeway. Responding fire crews were stuck in the resulting gridlock and CHP was urging drivers to avoid the area.

The North Fire was at 500 acres about 3:45 p.m., and firefighting aircraft were temporarily grounded due to drone activity, the San Bernardino County Fire Department stated on Twitter. Two hours later, the fire was at 3,500 acres. By 8:30, the blaze was still only 5 percent contained, according to the fire officials.

Five homes had burned and about 50 were threatened in the Baldy Mesa area, the Fire Department tweeted around 5:30 p.m. Fire officials later stated that four structures had been destroyed.

A home in Baldy Mesa goes up in flames in the North Fire on July 17, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

A home in Baldy Mesa goes up in flames in the North Fire on July 17, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

A number of fire engines could be seen positioned outside homes, providing structure protection and putting out spot fires, aerial video from Sky5 showed.

An evacuation center was set up at Serrano High School, at 9292 Sheep Creek Road in Phelan. An animal shelter was also opened at the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds, at 14800 Seventh St. in Victorville.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the Baldy Mesa area east of Sheep Creek Road, north and west of the 15 Freeway, and south of Phelan Road (map). The area consists of scattered homes and ranches.

"Currently we have not only a multi-casualty incident, but a large wildfire threatening structures," Josh Wilkins with the county Fire Department said.

A plane makes an aerial drop in the fight against the North Fire on Friday, July 17, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

A plane makes an aerial drop in the fight against the North Fire on Friday, July 17, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

Hundreds of firefighters were sent to structures that were threatened in Baldy Mesa, Oak Hills and Phelan areas, Wilkins said.

Aerial video from Sky5 showed flames burning just feet from a ranch home on the northwest edge of the fire about 5:30 p.m.

The blaze began as a vegetation fire and was spread rapidly toward the Oak Hills area by 40 to 45 mph winds, according to Wilkins.

Only two minor injuries were reported, according to Melody Lardner of the San Bernardino National Forest.

Some 20 vehicles were destroyed and 10 were damaged when the fire jumped the southbound lanes of the 15 Freeway, soon after the blaze flared up.

Two of the vehicles destroyed were big rigs, according to the multi-agency federal wildfire website InciWeb. Two more big rigs were damaged.

A KTLA viewer was on the freeway when the North Fire first broke out on July 17, 2015. (Credit: Eric Hooper)

A KTLA viewer was on the freeway when the North Fire first broke out on July 17, 2015. (Credit: Eric Hooper)

Aerial video from Sky5 also showed a boat and a car-carrier truck burning.

Seventy to 80 vehicles were abandoned on the pavement, some without keys, as frightened motorists fled the approaching flames, according to the California Highway Patrol.

"All of a sudden, it just came on us, and we ran up the hill," said Armando Aguilar, who lost his boat in the fire.

The Highway Patrol was trying to get the vehicles out of the fire's path, but officers were awaiting tow trucks from the Victorville area, CHP spokesman Steve Carapia said Friday afternoon. Officers were also working to reunite drivers with vehicles that were able to be driven away, Carapia said.

Those who did manage to drive through the fire described a chaotic and terrifying scene.

"I can feel the heat," said Steven Mrochek, who recording the scene on his cellphone as his family drove past the towering flames.

On the recording, his wife Gabrielle could be heard exclaiming how hot the fire was.

Two lanes on the northbound 15 Freeway reopened early Friday evening. Two lanes on the southbound side had also reopened around 12:30 a.m. Saturday.

The other two southbound lanes were expected to remain closed for an unknown amount of time.

The fire caused "superficial damage" to the freeway, according to Terri Kasinga with Caltrans District 8.  The charred sections of road will have to be scrubbed off and then patched, she said.

    Traffic on Highway 138 was backed up for miles following a fire that left as many as 80 vehicles blocking all lanes on the southbound 15 Freeway on July 17, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

Traffic on Highway 138 was backed up for miles following a fire that left as many as 80 vehicles blocking all lanes on the southbound 15 Freeway on July 17, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

The fire was under unified command with San Bernardino County Fire Department, Cal Fire, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Firefighters were facing temperature of 95 degrees, with relative humidity at 14 percent, according to InciWeb.

Gusty winds also impacted firefighting efforts.

"It's been a considerable factor," said James Blair with the Big Bear Hotshots. "The fire grew significantly in size and rapidly."

The blaze marks the second major wildfire in the San Bernardino National Forest in a month. The Lake Fire, which burned more than 31,000 acres, started June 17 south of Big Bear Lake.

The 15 Freeway is the main route from the Los Angeles basin to Las Vegas and is heavily traveled during Friday rush hour.

The area burning is about 45 miles east-northeast of downtown Los Angeles in a pass that separates the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

A public call center for the fire was set up at 909-383-5688.

KTLA's Kennedy Ryan contributed to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo caption that misidentified a highway near the North Fire. The post has been updated.

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