A typical Friday afternoon commute became an inferno when a brush fire jumped the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass and ballooned to 3,500 acres, lighting cars on fire, burning homes, sending billows of black smoke into the sky and paralyzing traffic in both directions.
High winds hindered firefighters' efforts to battle the growing blaze which started at 2:33 p.m. Officials dubbed it the North Fire.
Mandatory evacuations were in place in the Baldy Mesa areas east of Sheep Creek Road, north of Highway 138, west of the 15 Freeway and Highway 395, and south of Phelan road, according to the San Bernardino County Fire Department.
An evacuation center was set up at Serrano High School in Phelan.
Residents with large animals could be move them to the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds in Victorville.
Capt. Josh Wilkins from San Bernardino County Fire confirmed several structures caught fire. At least three homes were swallowed by the flames and eight outbuildings.
Fire officials urged commuters to stay in their cars because, "water drops can severly injure you." But, as the 3,500-acre brush fire shut down the freeway, the NBC4 live stream showed stranded commuters, faces covered, walking along the edge of the freeway as they tried to escape the fire.
Plumes of black smoke surrounded vehicles that were left stranded in the path of the burning blaze. At least 20 vehicles were destroyed and 10 damaged. A boat on a trailer burned before the fire made its way to a semi that burst into flames. According to KLLM Transport Services, the company that owns the semi, the driver got away safely and the truck was empty.
As of Saturday morning, officials updated the number of cars detroyed by the fire to 66.
Two motorists suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene, Wilkins said. The cause of their injuries was unknown.
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Traffic was snarled for miles in both directions on the freeway. Southbound lanes were closed at Oak Hill Road and traffic was stopped from the Main Street exit. Two northbound lanes were reopened after 5 p.m., Officer Steve Carapia said, of the California Highway Patrol.
Some drivers were led through dirt roads away from the freeway and from the fire. Other drivers desperate to escape the blaze took to the unmarked roads on their own through the desert area.
Officials from the CHP requested assistance from tow companies in the Victorville area to help remove vehicles from the freeway.
"Stay away from Cajon Pass no matter which direction you're traveling tonight," Terry Kasinga said, of Caltrans.
An assessment of the road would be made before officials reopened it completely, she added.
According to the San Bernardino County Fire Department the fire moved at a "rapid rate."
Crews from SBCFD and CalFire battled the blaze.
As of 12;30 a.m. Saturday, the fire was only 5 percent contained.