Wildfire burns with ferocity never seen by fire crews

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – A wildfire with a ferocity never seen before by veteran California firefighters raced up and down canyons, instantly engulfing homes and forcing thousands of people to flee, some running for their lives just ahead of the flames.

By Wednesday, a day after it ignited in brush left bone dry by years of drought, the blaze had raged across 40 square miles, though by the end of the day the first foothold was gained and more than 1,500 firefighters had the blaze 4 percent contained.

Authorities could not immediately say how many homes had been destroyed, but they warned that the number will be large.

“There will be a lot of families that come home to nothing,” San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said after flying over a fire scene he described as “devastating.”

“It hit hard. It hit fast. It hit with an intensity that we hadn’t seen before,” he said.

No deaths were reported, but cadaver dogs were searching the ruins for anyone who was overrun by the flames.

The cause of the fire wasn’t immediately known.

Five years of drought have turned the state’s wildlands into a tinder box, with eight fires currently burning from Shasta County in the far north to Camp Pendleton just north of San Diego.

“In my 40 years of fighting fire, I’ve never seen fire behavior so extreme,” Incident Commander Mike Wakoski said a day after the latest blaze broke out Tuesday in Cajon Pass, a critical highway and rail corridor through mountain ranges that separate Southern California’s major population centers from the Mojave Desert and Las Vegas.

Residents like Vi Delgado and her daughter April Christy, who had been through a major brushfire years before, said they had never seen anything like it either.

“No joke, we were literally being chased by the fire,” a tearful April Christy said in a voice choked with emotion as she and her mother sat in their minivan in an evacuation center parking lot in Fontana. They did not go inside because their dogs, three Chihuahuas and a mixed-breed mutt, were not allowed.

“You’ve got flames on the side of you. You’ve got flames behind you,” Christy said, describing a harrowing race down a mountain road. She was led by a sheriff’s patrol car in front while a California Highway Patrol vehicle trailed behind and a truck filled with firefighters battled flames alongside her.

She and her mother, onsite caretakers at the Angels and Paws animal rescue shelter in Devore Heights, said it was only moments after they smelled smoke that flames exploded all around them. They grabbed their pets and tried to rescue nine other shelter dogs and three cats, but a sheriff’s deputy told them there was no time.

“You won’t make it. Save yourself. Take your truck and leave,” Delgado said the deputy shouted at her, adding that he and others would try to rescue the animals. She learned later that authorities did save the animals, but officials could not tell her if her home survived.

More than 34,000 homes and about 82,000 people were under evacuation warnings as firefighters concentrated their efforts on saving homes in the mountain communities of Lytle Creek, Wrightwood and Phelan. They implored residents not to think twice if told to leave, but it appears many were staying.

“From reports that we were hearing, possibly up to half didn’t leave,” said Lyn Sieliet, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.