Family Drives Through Southern California Wildfire: 'It was terrifying'

CNN/ Newswire | 12/28/2015, 7:48 a.m.
Maaike Maks and her Dutch family believed they were a safe distance from the Solimar wildfire that roared along the ...
A grass fire is spreading out of control near Los Angeles.

By Michael Martinez and Greg Botelho


LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Maaike Maks and her Dutch family believed they were a safe distance from the Solimar wildfire that roared along the Southern California freeway on Christmas night.

The blaze appeared 30 minutes away. Moreover, they saw no road blocks.

But they suddenly found themselves in the heart of the furnace. Embers landed on their windshield, and flying torches hit their speeding car. They captured their brush with the inferno on video.

"We didn't realize it was this big and frightening," Maks said.

"There was nobody stopping us on the highway as we got closer and closer, so we thought it was totally safe for us to drive past it. As we started getting closer, I decided to record the fire we saw next to us, as I had never seen this before.

"Then all of the sudden, all these sparks and a burning bush hit our car, and we couldn't see anything of what was around us because of all the smoke. I was terrified and in a total shock. In the end, it only took a few seconds, but it felt like an hour," she said.

"It was terrifying. We were very lucky. In a worst-case scenario, our car could have exploded."

On Saturday afternoon, only 10% of the 1,200-acre fire was contained, but authorities were still able to reopen U.S. Highway 101 and Pacific Coast Highway in Ventura County. The highways had been closed in both directions in an area 70 miles west of downtown Los Angeles.

Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway, which is also designated as California Highway 1, are heavily traveled corridors in Ventura County and carry motorists between Los Angeles and central California.

The highways feature scenic vistas of the ocean and mountains. Authorities asked motorists Saturday to use caution on the freeways near the fire.

Maks and her family were driving on the highway after attending the NBA game in Los Angeles between the Lakers and Clippers, and the family was headed to their holiday home in Santa Barbara about 11 p.m. Friday. Maks' parents and two brothers were visiting from Haarlem, the Netherlands, said Maks, who lives in New York.

"We are a family of five and spending the holidays in Santa Barbara," she said.

California is parched under a historic drought, and Friday's winds whipped flames through the dessicated vegetation.

The fire was caused by downed power lines, fire officials said late Saturday.

The flames came within striking distance of area beaches, in addition to "bumping against the roadway," Ventura County Fire Capt. Steve Kaufmann said in a video posted to his department's Facebook page.

"We're seeing fire embers all over the place," Kaufmann said.

The fast-moving blaze burned through Christmas night and into Saturday, according to Ventura County Fire spokesman Capt. Mike Lindberry.

As of Saturday, some 600 firefighters were at the scene while four helicopters dumped water on the blaze. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, to the ankle and knee, authorities said.