Homes burn, thousands flee as out-of-control brush fire chars more than 25,600 acres in Cajon Pass

An explosive brush fire that ripped through canyons and flatlands in the Cajon Pass in less than a day continued to ravage hillsides and reduce homes to ash and rubble Wednesday, leaving even veteran firefighters bewildered.

“It hit hard, it hit fast — it hit with an intensity that we haven’t seen before,” San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said.

By Wednesday evening, the Blue Cut fire had charred 25,626 acres and was only 4% contained, according to Melody Lardner, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The official measurement of the fire was about 4,400 acres fewer than reported earlier in the day, a discrepancy that authorities attributed to more precise mapping of the burn area.

Despite the downgrade in size, officials said the blaze remained menacing and unruly, racing up Lone Pine Canyon and toward Highway 2, where the ski resort town of Wrightwood, population 4,525, was under threat.

Marc Peebles, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, likened the blaze’s activity Wednesday to an energetic child eluding his parents at the mall.

“It has been running all day,” he said.

With winds fanning the blaze, officials were concerned it could decimate Lytle Creek, a tiny mountain community along the wildfire’s southwestern flank that was under mandatory evacuation.

Structure-protection engines are stationed in Lytle Creek and Wrightwood. More than 1,580 firefighters were attacking the inferno “with everything they can from the air and the ground,” Lardner said.

More than 80,000 people in the county’s rural communities have been forced to flee. An unknown number of homes were destroyed.

The blaze’s small containment line was centered around Old Cajon, where the fire broke out Tuesday morning.

Officials are bracing for an immense tally of devastation from a fire fed by strong winds, parched tinder and triple-digit heat.

“There will be a lot of families that will come home to nothing,” Hartwig warned.

On Wednesday, the remote region was an ominous version of itself. Brilliant flames of red, gold and copper licked at skies choked with smoke. Multiple helicopters whirred in darkness as bulldozers razed paths below.

Summit Inn, a historic diner along Route 66 once frequented by Elvis Presley, had become indistinguishable rubble. Charred skeletons of buildings and cars dotted the area. A cargo train sat idle on tracks, abandoned by its engineer.

A spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service said assessment teams and cadaver dogs would be sent to homes and structures along Highway 138.

“The fire came so quickly,” said Chon Bribiescas. “We want to make sure nobody was left behind.”

It's been 13 years since the area was struck by fire, leaving the hills and mountains a mix of dead brush and new growth.

The conditions on Tuesday were ripe for a fast-moving fire, officials said. The Cajon Pass, acting as a funnel, sent winds that raced up to 30 mph to help the blaze jump Interstate 15, said Michael Wakoski, battalion chief of the San Bernardino County Fire Department and incident commander of the Blue Cut fire.

Firefighters had difficulty navigating the steep slopes while the flames chewed through the rugged terrain, Wakoski said.

Six county firefighters were trapped Tuesday by walls of flame while defending homes and evacuating residents in Swarthout Canyon, officials said. They were treated for minor injuries and have returned to the field, officials said.

No other injuries have been reported.

In addition to Lytle Creek, Lone Pine Canyon, Wrightwood and Swarthout Canyon, mandatory evacuations were ordered for Baldy Mesa, Old Cajon Road and West Cajon Valley, fire officials said.

But the closure of Highway 138 and Interstate 15 — two key thoroughfares in the area — clogged traffic and made it difficult for residents to leave.

Mary Grass, 74, and her husband left their Phelan home Tuesday as smoke and flames tore through the area. After dropping their horse off at a friend’s house in Hesperia, they headed to Victorville to spend the night.

They have already seen television footage of neighbors’ residences destroyed.

“Just wondering about our house now,” Grass said.

Others couldn’t bear to leave.

“I stayed just in case there’s a chance that I can do something to save my house,” said Joe Knowlton, who watched the flames from his porch in Wrightwood.

Knowlton, 49, said he watered his property and was standing guard with his 14-year-old son. If an ember fell nearby, at least he’d be around to stamp it out, he said.

“That’s the difference between the house going up in flames or not,” he said. “I don’t mind sticking it out.”

This year alone, California has been besieged by wildfires that have scorched hundreds of homes and killed eight people — all before autumn, when the state’s traditional fire season begins and the Santa Ana winds come into play.

The onslaught of fires has taxed fire departments and left little time for rest. Some firefighters were working up to 36 hours straight, said Peebles, the San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesman.

“These guys are going from fire to fire,” he added.

Such fires are a sort of “new normal,” said Char Miller, an expert on wildfires and national forests at Pomona College.

“We’re in the fifth year of drought and we’re starting to see the consequences of that,” he said.

Aerial fights against intense blazes can only do so much, Miller said. “You need boots on the ground.”

That’s a tall order as firefighters face temperatures that aren’t likely to cool until Friday, said Philip Gonsalves, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego.

Crews won’t be able to rely on any nighttime humidity to recover either, he said.

The dozens of residents who made their way to Sultana High School in Hesperia found themselves fearing the worst and taking stock of the best.

“You can’t worry about your things,” said Anthony Botello, 48, who left his home with just a handful of clothes and his wedding band. “It’s your life that you have to value.”

Nearby, Osuna Rosa sipped coffee on a cot and retraced the past day’s events.

The 53-year-old hospice nurse was at work in the High Desert on Tuesday morning when she noticed smoke.

The southbound Interstate 15 was closed. She tried an alternate route along Summit Valley Road, but found it clogged with traffic.

After Rosa failed to get a hotel room, she found herself in tears.

Then, a motel employee pointed her to the shelter. In the dimly lighted gymnasium, she managed to get a few hours of sleep, still dressed in her blue hospital scrubs.

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