Traffic was crawling out of Victorville where I had been for work and I was on my way home. I figured there was a big accident or something ahead especially when I started seeing wisps of smoke. After awhile I rounded a hill and saw this smallish beast burning in the wide space between the north bound and south bound highways.
They were letting two lanes of traffic go through until this happened...
The fire very quickly made it to the road and jumped the highway starting fresh on the other side. With new fuel and a strong wind, it spread like...well, like wildfire. If you aren't sure, that means fast, it moves really really fast. You cannot outrun it, unless you're like a long distance olympian or something. Now traffic is packed in and I've gotten closer and closer to it. We (we meaning that special bond you create with the people in the cars around you as you gather to criticize the firefighters and guess how long it will take) all assumed it would burn out on the south side and they'd start letting us through again. But all of a sudden, the wind turned straight toward us.
Everyone got quiet as the flames changed direction on a path right towards us. The cars at the front of the line disappeared into the smoke as new fuel hastened the hungry beast. Soon people started coming from below, running up the hill carrying water bottles, babies, dogs and old women. I sat mesmerized watching the fire get closer and closer and taking pictures like everyone else, of course. Soon a firefighter came up the hill with the rest of the evacuees telling us all to run. I could almost hear the 'you idots' that he probably wanted to follow that command.
I suddenly realized that the temperature had just gone up drastically. It was already hot, but now the wind was sending the heat of the fire all over us. Later on the news they said it reached 100 degrees on the concrete highway. I felt like I got sunburnt in a matter of seconds. A truck was weaving between cars picking up the old ladies and a woman in a wheelchair. I saw some people steering their cars through gaps and trying to follow it up the shoulder. I enjoy my jeep, we've only been together since April...so I jumped in and turned her around, careful not to hit the fleeing people, I pulled onto the shoulder on the north side along with a couple other cars. We didn't get very far as we found ourselves blocked by abandoned cars and now we were stuck by a row of semi trucks. I looked in my rearview and realized how close the fire was getting. More people ran by telling us to run, so I did.
I'll admit I was shaking now, it felt like a scene out of a movie about the apocalypse or some natural disaster about to swallow the west coast. It all felt so unreal, this movie screen had amazingly high definition and my 3-D glasses were working great.
By this time the copters and planes were coming with water and dropping pink and red goo in the path of the fire. They were focusing on the south side of the highway, that fire if left unchecked was the one that would gobble us all up. I wondered if it kept coming if we would have been able to escape it at all. Our luck improved as the wind shifted back, stopping it's momentum up the hill. We all stopped and watched again and took more pictures. Now you could see puffs of black smoke as cars went up in flames one by one. Several people next to me pointed out which ones were theirs and we wondered if fire was part of our car insurance plan. I briefly thought about what a cool story it would be if my jeep did burn up, but that would be way too much trouble and how the heck would I get home tonight? Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, the fire to the north had crested the hill and went on to race across the drought ridden dessert to take out homes and close all the highways everyone was using to go around it.
As the fire to the south cooled down and the copters started moving to the north all of us who had stuck around started to wander back down to see where our cars were. I peered behind each semi hoping to see mine and eventually came upon it, speckled with pink from the planes.
At this point we're assuming the danger is over and we're just waiting until people come back for their cars and clear the roads up. Obviously we weren't going to move forward, so I knew I had a long ride home going around the fire or back towards Palm Springs to pick up the 10 to the south and head west. But now we start to notice that black smoke is pouring out of the cars ahead, several semi trucks had caught on fire as well as the cars around them. A tanker truck sat next to them and we had no idea what was inside. A kind man told everyone not to worry, if it blew up we wouldn't feel a thing, we would all be dead quickly. I had been hiding in the shade under the semi next to my jeep and noticed the fires to the north side right next to the road had picked up again and were getting very close to our row of trapped cars. The copters were now dumping buckets of water on the trucks that were ablaze trying to stop that from spreading or exploding. We could hear small pops as glass windows and tires exploded in the heat. I guess I'm not out of the woods quite yet...
Up the hill I could here a woman in a emergency vehicle on a megaphone telling everyone still mingling by their cars to get in and follow the cleared path up the highway. My jeep and another car were trapped. At this point several men came from the smoke below frantically telling us to drive away and get our cars out in case the fire keeps spreading on our side. They jumped into the car ahead which was blocking our way (unlocked!), put it in neutral and we pushed it up the hill and through an opening. (Unfortunately for all of those people who abandoned their cars and caught rides to the nearest town, their cars were towed and they were charged anywhere from $600-$1000 to get them back) I waved at some of my new fire friends, jumped in my jeep and fled. I was overheated, dehydrated, drenched in sweat and had drank the last of my bottled water hours ago.
I crossed over the highway with the rest of the fleeing cars to head north bound again towards Victorville where I stopped at a gas station for water and a bathroom. This was not like my snowstorm where I could hide in snowbanks and behind trees to relieve myself. I also had to find a way home. The roads heading west were clogged with trapped travelers trying to get to LA so I decided to head east and followed a winding road up a mountain to Big Bear Lake. The cool mountain air was a soothing balm after being blasted with hot winds for the last few hours. It's a cute little town on a mountain, I decided I would have to come back one weekend and get a lodge for the night. I drove down the other side of the mountain towards home chasing a hazy sunset. After 12 hours of being on the road I took an excedrin, got a shower, ate some ramen (perhaps the most delicious meal ever at that point) and joined my roommate and her brother for the late showing of Trainwreck at the Arclight.