A fast-moving brush fire off Interstate 8, sparked by a vehicle’s exhaust system, charred roughly 400 acres in East County and shut down the busy freeway for hours Tuesday, authorities said.
Cal Fire officials said carbon particles from a passing vehicle’s exhaust system ignited the blaze off east I-8 about 1:40 p.m. A pipe from the exhaust system was found near the origin of the fire, Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham told reporters.
As flames roared 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.
All homes on Viewside Lane — about 15 — had been evacuated. The street parallels I-8 to the south. Five homes were threatened by the flames, until firefighters stopped the spread of the flames about 5 p.m.
During the firefighting efforts, three firefighters were hurt. Two were taken to a hospital with moderate injuries. The third was treated at the scene.
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.
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.
The freeway closure snarled traffic for East County commuters, with vehicles backed up on Interstate 8 and state Route 67. Early on, motorists were making U-Turns across the brushy median to turn around and later navigated back roads like Olde Highway 80 to get past the closure.
Bus routes to Viejas Casino were also affected.
West 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.
Weather conditions were not extreme east of Lakeside on Tuesday. The National Weather Service recorded a high of 89 degrees, humidity at 31 percent and sea breezes at 5 to 15 mph.
Overnight, temperatures will drop to 65, a marine layer of clouds will raise humidity to 80 or 90 percent, with mild breezes continuing but shifting to the north before sunrise, forecaster Derek Schroeter said.
On Wednesday, breezes will push east again, with a high of 84 and 80 percent humidity expected.
Cal Fire officials said there were two unrelated vehicle fires on the freeway around the same time the brush fire sparked.