Wildfire Sweeps Across California Freeway, Burns Cars

CA Freeway Fire July 17 - H - 2015

A drone temporarily disrupsted firefighting activities.

A fast-moving wildfire, dubbed North Fire, swept across a freeway Friday in a Southern California mountain pass, torching at least a half-dozen cars and a tractor trailer as motorists abandoned their vehicles and ran to safety. There were no confirmed injuries, authorities said.

The fire fanned by hot desert winds burned on both sides of Interstate 15. The main highway between Southern California and Las Vegas was crowded with weekend travelers.

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.

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, said from his vehicle.

Aerial firefighting efforts above the area, including planes and helicopters, pulled back and were forced to circle for 15 to 20 minutes around 3 p.m. due to activity from five private drones, Cal Fire Captain Richard Cordova told The Hollywood Reporter. If a drone impedes a firefighter's ability to make progress on the fire, and an individual is injured or killed in the process, the owner of the drone could be held liable because the firefighter was unable to help the endangered individual, according to Cordova. He said an investigation is underway to find out who the private drones belong to.

"There is no way to pinpoint who is flying these things. We wait until they get out of the area and we bring our aircraft in," Cordova said.

The San Bernardino Fire Department tweeted a reminder not to fly drones near fire scenes and the fire department has been notifying individuals throughout the summer that the team is unable to fly aircraft if drones are present. A hobby drone interfered with firefighting activities at 35-acre brush fire in Yucaipa Sunday.

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 along the side of the road.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Uriah Hernandez said no injuries had been confirmed.

The agency said the fire had burned at least 2,000 acres and was threatening the rural desert community of Baldy Mesa. Some areas were evacuated.

Melissa Atalla said 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.'"

The fire led authorities to shut several freeway lanes, causing traffic to back up for miles.

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 said.

10:54 p.m. July 17: Updated with information from Cal Fire captain Richard Cordova.