Above Spectacular Wildfire on L.A.-area Freeway Rises New Scourge: Drones

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PHELAN, California — Of all the elements they must battle in a wildfire, firefighters face a new foe: drones operated by enthusiasts who presumably take close-up video of the disaster.

Five such “unmanned aircraft systems” prevented California firefighters from dispatching helicopters with water buckets for up to 20 minutes over a wildfire that roared Friday onto a Los Angeles area freeway that leads to Las Vegas.

Helicopters couldn’t drop water because five drones hovered over the blaze, creating hazards in smoky winds for a deadly midair disaster, officials said.

The North Fire torched 20 vehicles on Interstate 15 and incited panic among motorists who fled on foot on the freeway Friday. The wildfire continued to burn uncontrollably Saturday, scorching 3,500 acres with only 5% containment in San Bernardino County, officials said.

Drones hovering over wildfires is a new trend in California, and on Saturday, fire officials condemned the operators of “hobby drones,” as officials labeled them. It was unclear Saturday whether authorities would launch an investigation into the five drones.

“Fortunately, there were no injuries or fatalities to report, but the 15 to 20 minutes that those helicopters were grounded meant that 15 to 20 minutes were lost that could have led to another water drop cycle, and that would have created a much safer environment and we would not have seen an many citizens running for their lives,” said spokesman Eric Sherwin of the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The drones got away, and firefighters resumed their water drops by chopper.

“We can’t confirm who was running drones, and we did not collect any of the drones because our focus was on fighting the fire,” Sherwin added.

Firefighters disdain drones buzzing over their work sites. At a national level, how to regulate drones and their flight paths are an ongoing controversy, especially as private industry pushes the FAA for more freedom to use drones in commerce.

“Please stop flying hobby drones in the area,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Gerrelaine Alcordo said about the wildfire site. “We can’t risk the choppers colliding with them. We could have loss of life.”

One motorist’s encounter

As she sat in her family’s car, Neha Shresha saw the wildfire race toward her and other traffic on the freeway.

A long, orange wall of flame with black smoke billowing high above it was about to sweep over Interstate 15, where their car was trapped in gridlock near the El Cajon Pass.

There was no driving anywhere, not even off the road.

“So, we ran off. We only got our purses and stuff,” Shresha said later. She and the other three gazed into the gray, burned-out steel hull that was all that remained of their car — aside from ashes blowing in the wind.

It was madness: Four lanes of cars were scorched, in front of and behind the Shresha family car, for dozens of yards. In all, 20 cars burned completely and 10 partially on the freeway, said the state firefighting authority CALFIRE.

All around the motorists, about 1,000 firefighters fought the wildfire with 22 fire engines, four water trucks, a bulldozer, seven airplanes and three helicopters.

After the flames moved on, motorists streamed back to check on their cars, SUVs and trucks. Most walked away again, abandoning their scorched wrecks where they stood on I-15.

Other damages

California’s ongoing historic drought is now four years old, causing unease among firefighters about the potential for more wildfires. The freeway wildfire began early Friday afternoon in the mountain desert near Phelan, which is a 75-mile drive northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The fire originated near Interstate 15 just north of California Highway 138.

The wildfire ripped through pine, Joshua, and mesquite trees, all exceptionally parched by the drought. The fire is now under investigation.

Flames damaged three houses and eight outbuildings. Completely destroyed were a total of 64 destroyed vehicles, including the 20 on Interstate 15, authorities said.

Mandatory evacuations were imposed on residents in the Baldy Mesa area.

People crying, vomiting

While on I-15, Talia Sclafani sat in a van with her soccer teammates when police called over loudspeakers for people to stay in their cars.

But the team and their driver ditched the van anyway and ran up a hill in 95-degree heat.

They stayed up there for about three hours.

“There were lots of people crying. Some were vomiting. People were really frightened,” she said.

Down below, a chopper dumped water onto cars and a burning tractor-trailer, as firefighters also fought to save vehicles on the interstate.

The lucky ones

A firefighter on the interstate sprayed cars with a hose.

“They said they tried to save my car, which I really appreciate,” said Vicki Beglari, who returned to her car to find it unscathed. Flames had singed the 18-wheeler standing next to it.

As she had watched the wall of fire come hissing up earlier, she realized it wouldn’t stop for I-15. “It jumped the lane, and so they had to stop the freeway,” she said.

Motorists exited their vehicles in near unison and headed away from the flames.

“Oh, I was terrified,” she said.

From a safe spot, she looked back and was impressed how quickly the wildfire raged up a mountain after it crossed the interstate.

Flames intruded into nearby communities, fire officials said.

In the town of Phelan, dozens of fire trucks pulled up as homeowners with garden hoses cast eerie silhouettes against the dark smoke. They watered down their roofs and trees, anxious that the flames might arrive soon.

Walk off I-15

After the flames passed I-15, Beglari and drivers near her heaved salvaged belongings into open trunks, shut the lids, and drove off.

Neha Shresha’s father and a law officer scrubbed ash off of their car to try find its VIN — a number on a metal identification strip behind the windshield. The officer wanted them to photograph it.

But the flames had seared it away — and the windshield with it.

“I’ll probably call a relative,” Shresha said. That’s how she figured her family would get home after they walked down off the interstate.

Bad wildfire season

Meanwhile, another wildfire raged in the same mountains, but it is much smaller, at 200 acres, authorities said. As of Saturday morning, 5% of that wildfire was contained.

On Saturday, the Los Angeles area experienced an unusual event: light rain.

That came as good news to firefighters.

“We have gotten some rain to slow the progression of the fire,” Angeles National Forest spokesman Nathan Judy told CNN.

About 300 campers and Girl Scouts, including children and special needs students, were shuttled off the mountains during the overnight hours Friday and Saturday, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

With ideal conditions for blazes, firefighters can expect to be busier than average during wildfire season this summer, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

CNN’s Michael Martinez wrote and reported from Los Angeles, and Ben Brumfield from Atlanta. Paul Vercammen reported from Phelan. Steve Almasy, Amanda Watts, and Sonya Hamasaki also contributed to this report.