SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – A wildfire raging east of Los Angeles overran two fire engine crews Monday, burning three people and shutting down Interstate 15, the main route between Southern California and Las Vegas.
The accident came within hours of a firefighting plane crash in Northern California that killed three people. Video of the crash showed the plane's wings erupting in flames, then falling off as the aircraft hurtled to the ground.
In all, 20 large fires were burning in 11 states across the country. Two fires in Colorado and the blaze in Northern California have forced more than 6,000 people out of their homes since early June -- and all were wreaking havoc Monday.
The firefighters near San Bernardino suffered first- and second-degree burns to their hands, elbows, and noses, said Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry's San Bernardino unit. He said all six were listed in good condition at Arrowhead Regional Hospital.
The firefighters were trapped when flames fed by tinder-dry brush engulfed the two engines they were using as the vehicles were parked on a highway. One of the firefighters managed to deploy an emergency shelter as the heat from the flames peeled the paint off of their trucks.
Peters said the injuries, and the deaths of the three firefighters in Northern California, signal the beginning of an especially dangerous fire season for the West.
"These things happening in the middle of June do not bode well for the remainder of the year," he said.
Late Monday night, the southbound side of Interstate 15 was reopened, but the northbound lanes remained closed indefinitely as ash rained down around the area.
"A lot of people are terrified," said Perry Van, 42, of Pinon Hills, about 10 miles west of the fire.
In Northern California, a 6,500-acre blaze near Walker forced 400 evacuations Sunday night and was burning out of control in steep terrain after destroying at least one home.
The three firefighters were killed when their aircraft spiraled into the ground and exploded in a huge ball of smoke and flames. The plane lost both its wings and crashed soon after completing a fire-retardant-dropping run.
Other aircraft were immediately grounded.
In southwestern Colorado, an additional 700 homes were evacuated near a 26,700-acre fire near Durango. Since Saturday, residents have left 1,700 homes in the hills north of town. At least one home has been burned.
"This weather and the fuels out there are not helping at all," fire information officer Mary Bell Lunsford said.
The Durango fire took top priority in the state from the largest wildfire in Colorado history.
That fire, 40 miles southwest of Denver, has blackened nearly 103,000 acres and destroyed 25 homes. Authorities say the fire was started June 8 by a U.S. Forest Service worker.
As the fire flared up Monday, authorities called for the evacuation of about 100 homes west of Colorado Springs -- dispiriting news for 5,400 people across the area who are still waiting to go home.
Harold and Christy Petersen could see puffs of smoke as they sat in camp chairs in front of their motor home.
"We can see our home from the highway and we can see that it's OK, but we can't go there. We drive up and down the road six or seven times a day to see it," Harold Petersen said.
The couple moved from Colorado Springs into a home near Lake George about a year ago. "Our dream was always to live in the mountains," Christy Petersen said. "We're going to stay even if it's black as black. I don't want to go back to the cement city."
Bob Robinson, who lives on a 120-acre ranch about three miles from Lake George, said he worked hard to reduce fire danger on his land, clearing pine and installing a fireproof roof. He was frustrated that the surrounding forest hadn't received similar treatment.
"People won't let the Forest Service do its job," he said. "They won't let them cut trees. They won't let them manage the forest and that's the main reason we are having so many wildfires this year."