LOS ANGELES (WWJ/AP) – A few minutes before they had been on the vacation of a lifetime, but now Russell Allevato and his family were running for their lives from a raging brushfire that had trapped them and hundreds of other terrified people on a traffic-jammed highway connecting Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
“People were screaming. It was just crazy,” said Allevato, of Southgate, Mich., who watched helplessly Friday afternoon as flames engulfed his rental car and destroyed everything inside it while he, his nephew and two teenage daughters fled to safety.
“The road was pretty much melting,” Allevato told WWJ’s Lauren Barthold. “The guardrail was on fire, it was just a mess. It was so windy that the fire was chasing us. The fire was on our right, left and in front of us — we were pretty much trapped.”
The fire in the winding, mountainous Cajon Pass 55 miles northeast of Los Angeles began about 2:30 p.m. Friday in drought-ravaged dry grass below the elevated lanes of Interstate 15. Pushed by 40-mph winds, it raced up a hill and onto the traffic-clogged freeway, trapping literally hundreds of people amid a cauldron of smoke, flames and ash.
“We had some highway patrolmen who said they had never seen fire travel that fast,” said Greg Kieran, a San Bernardino County Fire Hazmat specialist. “It just overran these people before they even knew what hit them.”
Drivers and their passengers had no choice but to abandon their cars as the flames hopscotched down the freeway, destroying 20 vehicles, several of which exploded in fireballs.
“We got to the top of the hill and we just watched our car burn,” said Allevato. “As we were running, the helicopters and the planes were showing up, dropping water and chemicals on the fire and we got sprayed. I mean, they were just dropping it pretty much on the people also. It was just a nightmare. Something out of a movie.”
Allevato and his family fled their rental car so quickly they left all the clothes and other belongings they had brought with them from Southgate, Michigan. The vehicle was reduced to a charred hunk of steel.
“We lost everything. All our luggage, all my kids’ clothes. I mean, we have nothing,” he said. “My kids were crying and they just, this is something they’ve never seen. And they were wearing just flip-flops. Their shoes are melted.”
Amazingly, only two people were injured. Both suffered minor smoke inhalation, authorities said, but declined medical attention.
Television helicopters carried the scene live as flames leapt from vehicle to vehicle while water-dropping helicopters and then firefighters on the freeway battled to get control.
Firefighters’ initial effort was hampered by five drones that were being flown in the area when fire broke out, said Lee Beyer, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. He said several firefighting aircraft were delayed or diverted until the drones moved out of the area.
Meanwhile, a car-carrying tractor-trailer rig and its cargo of eight automobiles went up in flames. So did a boat being transported by another vehicle.
Among those trapped by the flames was Lance Andrade, a 29-year-old railroad conductor from nearby Apple Valley, who found himself caught in the traffic jam just as the fire jumped the freeway. Soon people were running toward him and he joined them, only to find there was nowhere to run. Flames had surrounded him and the others.
A panicked looking firefighter ordered everyone to take cover, and Andrade said he huddled with four other men and two elderly women in the back of a tractor-trailer rig until the flames passed. One of the women, who had become separated from her family, began to cry. Everybody was terrified.
“You could hear the explosions from people’s vehicle tires popping from the heat,” Andrade said. “You could hear crackling. Smoke was coming in every direction. You could feel the heat. We just waited it out and prayed to God.”
Some drivers did manage to get off the highway, turning onto rural side roads that quickly became clogged with traffic.
Nelly Venzor said she and several members of her family, including her 95-year-old mother, abandoned their car and received a ride to their home in nearby Hesperia from a stranger in a pickup truck.
“When the fire just jumped to the other side of the freeway I thought, ‘It’s really hot and my mom is in the car. And if we have to run. It has to be done now. Quick, before we get stuck here and roast,” Venzor said.
“People could not move their cars. People were running. I thought, ‘OK, this is it.’ I really did,” she said.
California is in the midst of severe drought, and wildfires are common. Some break out near freeways, but it’s very unusual to have vehicles caught in the flames.
It being a Friday afternoon, however, Interstate 15 was typically jammed with vehicles traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Adding to the congestion was construction work going on in the area, said San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Josh Wilkins.
Allevato and his family had left Las Vegas earlier in the day for Los Angeles, where they had hoped they might me the Kardashian sisters at the family’s West Hollywood clothing boutique.
Allevato’s 15-year-old daughter, Leah, was devastated.
“We waited two years for this vacation, and I saved all my money,” she said. “I was thinking about it every day, and I finally got here and I have no clothes. … I waited so long, and it’s ruined.”
Allevato said he’s doing his best to console his kids, reminding them they are lucky to be alive.
“We have a flight in a few days and we’re just going to try to stick it out and maybe try to get some clothes somehow. Our clothes are all full of smoke, we’ve got burn holes in them. Our shoes are pretty much melted from running on the hot cement,” he said. “But the main thing is we’re safe.”
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