East County brush fire chars 400 acres; travelers face delays

Cal Fire crews battle the Jennings Fire Tuesday as the flames quickly spread over 400 acres off of I-8.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY — A car’s exhaust system is blamed for starting a fast-moving brush fire Tuesday off Interstate 8, burning roughly 400 acres in East County and shutting down the Interstate 8 freeway for hours, according to a California Highway Patrol report. A pipe from the exhaust system was found near the origin of the fire, said Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham.

Cal Fire reported the fire starting around 1:45 p.m. Tuesday at I-8 and Old Highway 80, near the community of Lakeside. According to their website, of the 400 burned acres, 30 percent has been contained. Mandatory and warning evacuations have been lifted for the homes and schools in the fire’s path. Eastbound I-8 was open with one lane, but the other remained closed until 9:30 p.m. Cal Fire reported the forward rate of spread of the fire had been stopped on Tuesday.

As flames spread across a mountainous stretch of land between Lake Jennings Park and Harbison Canyon roads, a number of homes and schools in the area were evacuated.

Residents were allowed to return to their homes about 9 p.m., when the blaze was 10 percent contained.

During the firefighting efforts, three firefighters were hurt. Two were taken to a hospital with moderate injuries. The third was treated at the scene, according to reports.

Students taking part in an after-school program at Creekside Elementary School on Harbison Canyon Road were evacuated to Joan MacQueen Middle School on Tavern Road in Alpine, the San Diego Union reported. Evacuated residents were being directed to the middle school or Granite Hills High School on Granite Hills Drive where temporary shelters were set up until the evacuation orders were lifted.

Earlier in the day, firefighters faced steep, rocky terrain as they battled flames that one witness described as more than 10 feet high, said Cal Fire Capt. Issac Sanchez. Seven air tankers and four helicopters doused the hillside with water and retardant.

While crews worked, I-8 was closed in both directions between Lake Jennings Park and Tavern roads for hours, transforming what is usually a 10-minute drive between Lakeside and Alpine into a trek of more than an hour, officials said in a release.

The freeway closure delayed vacationing Imperial Valley residents and those traveling from Arizona, with vehicles backed up on Interstate 8 and state Route 67. Facebook videos showed motorists making U-Turns across the brushy median to turn around or to navigate back roads like Old Highway 80 to get past the closure. Bus routes to Viejas Casino were also affected, according to its webpage.

Westbound lanes on I-8 reopened about 5 p.m. One eastbound lane was reopened two hours later. The second remained closed until about 9:30 p.m. Caltrans reported on its webpage.

Cal Fire officials said there were two unrelated vehicle fires on the freeway around the same time the brush fire was sparked.