Furious California wildfire leaves trail of destruction

AP News
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Posted: Aug 17, 2016 5:07 PM
Furious California wildfire leaves trail of destruction

LOS ANGELES (AP) — What began as a small brush fire along a freeway in drought-stricken Southern California morphed into a massive blaze fueled by gusty winds and dry vegetation. Swift-moving flames gutted a historic Route 66 diner, burned homes to their foundations and forced tens of thousands of people to flee the Cajon Pass, a mountain pass between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains.

A snapshot of the fire and its impacts:

EXPLOSIVE GROWTH

Wildfires have ripped through California in the past, but recent fires have grown stronger and hotter. A persistent statewide drought has killed scores of trees and dried out swaths of land, creating incendiary conditions.

The blaze that erupted Tuesday in a mountainous region about 60 miles east of Los Angeles quickly burned out of control in less than 24 hours, surprising even the most experienced firefighters.

"In my 40 years of fighting fire, I've never seen fire behavior so extreme," said Incident Commander Mike Wakoski.

After a destructive fire season last year, 2016 is shaping up to be equally bad.

"It's to the point where explosive fire growth is the new normal this year," said Glenn Barley of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

FIERY SCENE

Flames danced in every direction along ridges of bone-dry canyons, chewing through drought-parched grass and stands of brush. Clouds of smoke billowed to Las Vegas, 200 miles away.

Numerous homes were reduced to rubble though an exact count wasn't immediately available.

The fire shut down highways including the main artery between Los Angeles and Las Vegas as crews worked to repair scorched heaps of guard rails, power lines and buckled train trestles.

About 100 deputies, probation officers and paramedics rushed from door to door in affected communities, helping residents and their pets escape.

Evacuation centers were set up for animals — big and small — including dogs, horses and chickens.

David Delgado crated up as many dogs at his rescue facility as he could and drove away with the flames visible in his rear-view mirror. Firefighters later rescued the remaining dogs.

"We were able to get out very quickly. We had one route and we were able to go through that area," he said.

STAYING PUT

Leo Hordyk, owner of the Grizzly Cafe in Wrightwood, is staying put for now and keeping his cafe running despite the order to evacuate.

"I feel like I need to be here to serve our community," the 54-year-old said.

With the help of his chef and a small staff, the cafe served breakfast and lunch to first responders.

It was the third time Hordyk kept his cafe open during a wildfire. He also worked during fires in 2009 and 2010.

ROADSIDE DINER

The Summit Inn, a popular pit stop between Los Angeles to Las Vegas, was destroyed in the fire. The diner opened in 1952 and boasted celebrity guests such as Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood and Pierce Brosnan.

Several staff members returned to the restaurant Wednesday to sort through charred valuables from a safe.

A post from the Summit Inn's Facebook page read: "It is beyond comprehension how this could possibly happen!"

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AP writers Delara Shakib and Christine Armario contributed to this report.