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Rain calms California fire that jumped freeway, burned cars

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  • Smoke from a wildfire rises above Interstate 15 on the Cajon Pass on Friday near San Bernadino

LOS ANGELES » A rare summer storm helped firefighters advance Saturday on a wildfire that swept across a California interstate, torching vehicles and sending people running for their lives before burning property in a desert town.

Light rain and moist air dampened the blaze that began Friday afternoon in the mountainous Cajon Pass 55 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the main route connecting Southern California and Las Vegas.

"The weather really helped," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Travis Mason said.

The fire was sparked below the elevated lanes of Interstate 15. Pushed by 40 mph winds, it raced up a hill and onto the traffic-clogged freeway, trapping hundreds of people amid a cauldron of smoke, flames and ash.

Drivers and their passengers abandoned their cars as flames hopscotched down the freeway, destroying 20 vehicles, several of which exploded in fireballs.

"You could hear the explosions from people’s vehicle tires popping from the heat," said 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. "You could hear crackling. Smoke was coming in every direction. You could feel the heat. We just waited it out and prayed to God."

As firefighters gained control of the freeway, the flames spread to the rural community of Baldy Mesa, destroying three homes and 44 vehicles, and forcing residents in the area to flee. At its height, the fire threatened about 700 structures in the area.

Evacuation orders for residents were lifted Saturday afternoon as firefighters contained 45 percent of the blaze, Mason said.

In all, the fire burned about 8 ½ square miles.

Amazingly, only two people were injured. Both suffered minor smoke inhalation, authorities said, but they declined medical attention.

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 in the area.

Firefighters also made progress on another wildfire that broke out Friday night in the San Gabriel Mountains and forced about 300 campers near the community of Wrightwood to flee.

The fire was 35 percent contained after burning about 200 acres. Pouring rain on Saturday helped the 150 firefighters on the line, though several lightning strikes forced them to stop working for a time.

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