Tuesday, August 16th, 2016
This morning, the Pilot Fire that burned from the Silverwood Lake region on through Summit Valley and Southern Hesperia was finally declared 100% contained. Unfortunately, a new fire erupted in the Cajon Pass off old Route 66 at 10:35 on this very same morning. I woke up to an all too familiar view outside my window and knew what I would be doing for the rest of the day. A gigantic plume of smoke was growing and heading our way again. It was time to grab my camera gear and hit the road for some up close action of the newly dubbed “Bluecut Fire”.
I started my drive along Mariposa Road southbound toward the smoke and saw a massive traffic jam that went on for miles on the southbound lanes of Interstate 15. I had learned that the I-15 was shut down from Devore at the bottom of the Cajon pass all the way up to the Ranchero Road exit in Hesperia. All traffic was being diverted off the freeway and turned around to find alternate routes to their destinations. The northbound lane was virtually a ghost town with an occasional vehicle driving along.
“Interstate 15 southbound traffic jam against a smoke filled, tangerine sky.”
“These folks are in for a super long drive home if they have to find an alternate route down the hill.”
After crossing over the Joshua Street overpass, I stopped at the Pilot Truck Stop to grab a protein bar as I had the feeling I was going to be out for awhile. As expected, the entire truck stop was swarming with folks from the detour with looks of confusion and concern about how they were going to get home from here. If they lived in the Inland Empire, their best bet would be to try crossing through the mountain community of Crestline , but if they were heading to Los Angeles, they would certainly have to take the 138 to Palmdale and hop the 14 to the 5 from there.
“This poor S.O.B. was most likely camping when an air tanker bombed him with a load of Phos-Chek fire retardant.”
Helping the out city slickers
As I got into my rig to set up the CB radio, I got a knock on the window. The man who was parked next to me asked me if I could help him and his daughter get back to Los Angeles. Surprisingly, they did not have any navigation devices so I did my best to explain to him the route he had to travel. He looked a bit overwhelmed so I said, “Tell you what, I’m heading out to the 138 anyway, just follow me.” He smiled and said okay. I set off and he stayed close behind me as I guided him northbound on the 395 and broke left onto Phelan Road. We eventually hit dense traffic through Baldy Mesa and Phelan, but stayed the course until we reached the 138. I pulled over as he pulled up along side me and I told him to take 138 west to the 14 south, then get on the 5 and head south to Los Angeles. They were grateful and we parted ways.
“The Drive to the 138 by way of Phelan Road was a very dark and smoky experience, but eventually we reached the other side and traffic lightened up.”
“Looking back at what we had just driven through, the ash cloud was on a menacing sight.”
“I continued a short ways down the 138 and found some of the I-15 traffic that was diverted.”
“I tried to get to Wrightwood, but I was foiled by a road closure at Beekley Road.”
I stopped at the Stater Bros. parking lot and took notice of all the folks that had been evacuated from Wrightwood and the surrounding areas. They were parked in their R.V.’s and Campers, helplessly watching as the fire approach the town of Wrightwood. There were a few displaced truckers here as well which parked along the nearby streets and parking lots. You could hear the anxiety of the horses in their trailers and the concern of the people who wondered if they got everything they could get. It was going to be a long week for them.
“These folks wait and hope for the best as the fire crews work around the clock to contain the Bluecut Fire.”
“The view of the fire raging in the distance looked like hell from the Stater Bros. parking lot.”
Before heading directly back into the smoke, I drove up Sheep Creek Road to Sunnyslope Road. I wanted to get a closer look which required getting off the road for a bit and into the rough, unmaintained dirt roads of the neighborhoods that occupied that section of Phelan. There were folks standing outside their homes watching the rising smoke pillar that was getting closer and closer while others were watering their roofs.
“This was about as close as I was going to get, this fire was a beast and was moving fast.”
After I finished getting my last shots outside the smoke, I had to drive back into it for more photo opportunities. I drove north on the terrible dirt roads which were giving my suspension a good workout. I eventually got to Phelan Road again and headed east into the smoke. There were highway patrol vehicles and fire trucks blasting their sirens and flashing their lights as they raced along Phelan Road in both directions. The view of the northern regions of the high desert came into view as a sliver beneath the smoke.
“Victorville and Apple Valley get hit with an enormous and unrelenting ash cloud.”
“Driving to Baldy Mesa, I stopped to get a shot of the surreal skies.”
“The sun looked like it was in it’s red giant phase through the dense smoke in the skies.”
Fire Battalions Unite!
I eventually stopped at Baldy Mesa Road and Phelan Road. The timing could not have been any more perfect as fleets of fire trucks were beginning to congregate at that intersection. I was hanging out at the Shell station where a few others were taking photos of the fire trucks as they continued to line up across the intersection. I had a man in a Mercedes approach me and ask if I knew an alternate route to Ontario. I told him that his best bet would be through Crestline, but the traffic was bad and mentioned that if he went to Palmdale to get around the San Gabriel Mountains, he would be in for an enormous road trip. He considered his options, said thank you, and headed off.
“The fire engines were lined up and their crews were preparing for their battle with Bluecut.”
“Once they were ready, they took off one by one, eastbound on Phelan Road.”
“Several Battalion chiefs had arrived to go over the details of the fire.”
“More fire tucks arrived and lined up along Baldy Mesa Road in preparation for battle to the south.”
“Engine 135 idles patiently before getting the word to head south on Baldy Mesa Road with it’s battalion.”
I was going photo crazy here and just as I was getting close to heading out to another location, I felt an extremely sharp pain on the back of my neck. It felt like a sharp needle stabbed me and without any hesitation, I reached back fast and snatched up a black wasp that had apparently stung me for no reason that I could think of except maybe that it was being an asshole! I threw it down and it flew away, but I was a bit worried. After a moment, I sighed with relief because no flying insect that has ever stung me has resulted in anything negative so I carried on and headed eastbound on Phelan Road.
I was eager to get more photos, but I eventually hit some heavy traffic. The sun was getting ready to set and I needed to get out of this mess, so I put the Starship into 4WD and went up a steep embankment and made my own road. The scene with the setting sun made you feel like you were on some distant alien world!
“I found a spot to hang out for sunset and took a short walk around while the Starship chilled in the field.”
“The photo opportunities here were yielding some pretty fantastic results!”
“The Joshua Trees make such an iconic subject for my desert home, yet look like they’re on an alien world with this smoke.”
“The skies appeared to be on fire themselves with all the colors that were blasting through the smoke.”
I walked back to the Starship and headed out to the highway again. Just before starting my way back home, I spotted another battalion of fire engines heading westbound on Phelan Road. This was the first time that I had seen so many fire trucks in my life. I had lost count long ago and couldn’t imagine how many more were heading that way to join the battle. The Pilot Fire was peanuts compared to this much more aggressive cousin. The unrelenting drought, intense summer heat and extremely low humidity created the conditions for any fire to become a raging beast like this. It took the Pilot Fire two days to burn 6,500 acres of land, but this Bluecut Fire managed that in less than 6 hours!
“Another fire battalion heads westbound to join the fierce battle.”
“I started my drive home and saw the irony printed on this water tank in Hesperia.”
“Last Joshua Tree capture for the day.”
The Bluecut Fire was something that not even some locals including myself have seen in over 25 years. The drought has definitely created a very dangerous situation with the extreme heat that plagues the Mojave region during the summer. The evacuations reached an uncomfortable distance from my home at just 2.6 miles (4.2 km) away. By the late evening the fire had exploded to 15,000 acres and a State of Emergency was declared by California Governor Jerry Brown. At the end of the day more than 82,000 people were evacuated from their homes in Lytle Creek, Wrightwood, Baldy Mesa, Phelan, and a portion of Hesperia. Unlike the the Pilot Fire, the Bluecut Fire had already destroyed many homes and structures including the famous Summit Inn. The fire is 0% contained and is burning out of control.
UPDATE: via The Victorville Daily Press as of 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 17th 2016
Northbound Interstate 15 through the Cajon Pass has been opened)
Size: 25,626 acres – San Bernardino National Forest said acreage count change is due to “more accurate mapping”
Containment: 4 percent
Mandatory evacuations: The entire community of Wrightwood; West of I-15, and West of Hwy 395 and west of Summit Valley; South of Bear Valley Rd. and East of Caughlin Road; North of 138, east of Sheep Creek, south of Phelan Rd. and west of Caliente; Lone Pine Canyon; Swarthout Canyon; West Cajon Valley; Lytle Creek Canyon. South of Phelan Road, east of Sheep Creek Rd and west to Green Road
Evacuation centers: Jessie Turner Community Center at 15556 Summit Avenue in Fontana; Sultana High School at 17311 Sultana St. in Hesperia.
Animals: Devore Animal Shelter (small animals) at 19777 Shelter Valley
San Bernardino – (800)472-5609; Victorville Fair Grounds (large animals)
14800 7th Ave. Victorville; Apple Valley Animal Shelter (small animals) at 22131 Powhatan Road in Apple Valley.
Forever Wild Animal Sanctuary in Phelan dismissed rumors of the facility burning down and confirmed their property and animals were safe.
Schools cancelled: Districts closed Thursday, Aug. 18 include Adelanto Elementary School District, Apple Valley Unified School District, Barstow Unified School District, Helendale School District, Hesperia Unified School District, Oro Grande School District, Snowline Joint Unified School District, Victor Elementary School District and Victor Valley Union High School District. SJUSD has also extended its closure to Friday, Aug. 19, while the other districts will continue to monitor air quality before making a decision to remain open.
Roads closed: South Bound 395 closed at Joshua; Highway 138 has been closed from Interstate 15 to Highway 2; State Route 2 closed from LA County Line to the 138; Hwy 138 closed between County Line to Highway173; Old Cajon Blvd north of Devore Cutoff; Lytle Creek @ Glen Helen; Beekley Road from Phelan Road to the128; Hwy 38 to Lone Pine Canyon has been closed; 15 Southbound at Main Street.
Recommended alternate routes: From High Desert to the Valley: Highway 18E to highway 247S to Highway 62S to Interstate 10W
Total personnel:1,584 personnel on scene. 152 engines, 18 crews, 8 air tankers, 2 Very Large Air Tankers (VLATS), and 8 Helicopters.
Total affected: An estimated 34,500 homes and 82,640 people are being affected by the evacuation warnings.
Air quality: The Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District has issued a Smoke Advisory for the Victor Valley, Barstow and surrounding communities.
Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”
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