Valuable Lessons Learned From Cajon Pass Inferno

It was a hot, windy and crowded afternoon when an inferno erupted on the 15 Freeway through the Cajon Pass on July 17, 2015.

Frantic 911 calls recorded the voices of terrified drivers, running from the string of burning cars that had unbelievably caught fire that started in the adjacent brush.

"I'm scared."

"We don't know what to do."

"It's getting closer."

"Oh my God."

Thousands of similar calls revealed the magnitude of the chaos and confusion.

"Should I turn around?"

Drivers had no idea what to do.

"They are going to move us? What's going to happen?"

And dispatchers were unsure of what to tell them.

"If you feel like you need to run away from your vehicle, then do that. I can't tell you what to do because I can't see you!"

Veteran first responders said they were shocked by how fast the fire spread.

"That day, personally I felt fear for the people who were there on the scene," said Officer Steve Carapia, a spokesman for California Highway Patrol's Inland Division.

"It just caught us off guard. It caught everyone off guard."

Flames jumped the freeway, surrounding drivers. The danger escalated to a potential mass casualty incident.

"The confusion, it was amazing. We had people at that point fearful of their lives," said San Bernardino County Fire Department division Chief Dan Munsey.

Some drivers tried to escape by going the wrong way on the shoulder, blocking already limited space for fire crews.

Victoria Beglari was in her black Mercedes just feet from the flames shooting out from a big rig.

"It was very confusing, a lot of people didn't know what to do," she said.

Caught in the middle of the mayhem, she grabbed her daughters and her dog and ran.

"I was terrified," she said.

Beglari said she is grateful to have survived. But others are critical of fire responders on the ground who they say gave confusing instructions, or no direction at all.

Munsey said it's impossible to have a set game plan, and split-second decisions are made and changed based on what's happening right in front of them.

"We might tell you to stay in your car, maybe there's a helicopter above you about to drop water -- then ten seconds later we may be telling you to exit your vehicle and run," he said.

But most people who abandoned their cars took their keys, creating a new and major obstacle for firefighters.

Adding to the danger were drones flying in restricted airspace, delaying airdrops when every second counted.

"It's amazing that there were no fatalities or major injuries," CHP Officer Carapia said.

"With any fire, there's always lessons you can learn," Munsey said.

We live in freeway country -- 150,000 drivers use the Cajon Pass alone every single day.

It is not a matter of if, but when, disaster happens, and whether it's a fire, earthquake or mudslide chances are many of us will be in our cars when disaster strikes.

And first responders said the agencies involved in the Cajon Pass fire learned valuable lessons that will help them in the future.

"We learned to use our aircraft better, we learned to communicate to our citizens," Munsey said.

They also said the first message is for the people they are protecting. The lesson? Despite human instinct, try not to panic. CHP said drivers can help them when a crisis unfolds.

"If something were to happen at any given moment, are you prepared to call 911?" Carapia said. "Ask yourself when you are driving, 'Where am I'?"

For Beglari, the stranded driver, it is now something she thinks about every day.

"I do worry about it when I go through that ramp again," she said. "It was just really scary."

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