Firefighters gain control over Cajon Pass blaze

Firefighters gain control over Cajon Pass blaze

03 September 2011

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USA — Hundreds of firefighters were gaining the upper hand on a Cajon Pass blaze that had mushroomed to more than 1,100 acres Friday night, forcing evacuations, destroying two homes and snarling traffic at the beginning of the long Labor Day weekend.

Two firefighters were injured battling the blaze, one apparently suffering heat exhaustion and the other smoke inhalation, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Fred Pena. The so-called Hill fire was substantially contained late Friday night, and officials said that fire conditions were becoming favorable, with easing winds and increasing humidity.

The fire was reported about 12:40 p.m. at the kickoff of the end-of-summer holiday when Southern California’s freeways are typically jammed, in particular Interstate 15 as it climbs the Cajon Pass — the gateway to Las Vegas and the Colorado River. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

The southbound lanes of the 15 were closed for hours, and traffic in the northbound lanes was snarled.

Omar Corona, 21, and David Valdez, 45, stopped on the shoulder of the northbound lanes, desperately checking the GPS on their Chevy Malibu for a shortcut to Hesperia, where they were supposed to pick up a trailer to haul a car before returning to Los Angeles.

“Oh, man, it’s taken us four hours. It feels like we’ll never get back,” Corona said, shortly before he and Valdez hopped back into their car.

Joe Bell, 29, a graduate student in chemical engineering at Brigham Young University, left Provo, Utah, with his wife, Heather, 22, their newborn baby, his mother-in-law and his sister-in-law at 6:30 a.m. for his cousin’s wedding in Newport Beach. But when their Dodge Durango hit Hesperia, it ground to a halt in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

“We got off in Hesperia and there were no detour signs. People were going in two different directions, so we just took one of them,” Bell said.

For Bell, it was the beginning of a three-hour journey to a gas station less than 20 miles away.

“That’s the worst experience I’ve ever been in driving a car,” he said. “No one told us where to go. It was unbelievable.”

Fortunately, his cousin’s wedding is Saturday, so there was little danger of missing the ceremonies, no matter how horrible the traffic was.

Michael O’Connor said he was stuck in traffic driving from L.A. to Arizona, where he’s DJing at a back-to-school party for students at Northern Arizona University.

“The traffic is just stopped,” O’Connor said. “There was a whole smoke cloud in front of us. And there’s been probably 40 to 50 firetrucks that have driven by in the emergency lane; different kinds of trucks — SUVs, firetrucks, buses, all that.”

O’Connor said he also saw three motorists driving backward in the emergency lane.

About 750 firefighters and other crews battled the blaze, helped by nearly 20 aircraft, including a DC-10 dropping fire retardant.

Brandt Maxwell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said that although humidity will remain relatively low over the weekend, that could improve in the next few days.

And the winds, which have not been particularly strong, could decrease slightly over the weekend.

“Wind speeds as a whole will be moderate,” Maxwell said, “and it’s usually when you get the strong winds that the fire danger is very high.”

Pena, of the U.S. Forest Service, said the situation was improving rapidly. By late Friday night, he said, it was difficult to find any active flames.

“The winds are in our favor,” he said. “They seem to be blowing back into the fire. The rate of spread has slowed dramatically.”

He added: “I can’t see any smoke and flame. It’s hard to find where the fire is.”

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