Family survives wildfire, a ‘nightmare’ scene

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

A peaceful scenic trip through the desert turned into a nightmare Friday for a Southgate family caught in the grips of a fast-moving California wildfire.

Russell Allevato, a 45-year-old real estate broker, was several days into a long-awaited vacation from Las Vegas to Los Angeles with his two teenage daughters, his nephew and his nephew’s girlfriend.

They were traveling along Interstate 15 — the main highway between Southern California and Las Vegas — when the wildfire that started in the Cajon Pass ate through dried brush and began engulfing vehicles, sending passengers fleeing for their lives.

Allevato said just before the fire was upon them, traffic had been at a standstill in the 105-degree heat. They got out of their rental SUV, a 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe, and began taking video and photos of the fire. Then suddenly, the wind shifted and it barreled their way, blocking them in.

“There was fire to the right and to the left and in front of us,” Allevato recalled in a Saturday afternoon phone interview with The Detroit News. “It was like a horseshoe.”

Allevato said he grabbed his girls, Sarah, 17, and Leah, 15, and they all started running the opposite way. Along with them, he said, was a pack of what seemed like a thousand others.

“The fire was chasing us almost. It was a nightmare, like out of the Walking Dead,” Allevato said. “It was moving very fast and everyone started jumping out of cars, screaming and running. People were getting trampled on.”

The family’s flip flop shoes began melting off of their feet as they pounded the scorched concrete and were pummeled by hot ash, but continued down the road for about two miles. Eventually, they took refuge on a hill for hours, he said.

Some others, he said, were unable to move fast enough or elderly and immobile and forced to stay with their cars.

Allevato said he had filled up the SUV with about 16 gallons of gas about 10 minutes before the fire ripped through the Southern California freeway. They then watched their car and several semis become engulfed and burst into flames.

“One lady got hit by a big piece of ash, she was screaming. Then our car was totally engulfed in flames with all of our luggage, wallets, money,” he said, adding eventually planes began showing up to drop water and chemicals on the blaze.

Allevato said his daughters had long wanted to visit Los Angeles to shop at the Kardashian boutique, DASH, and hopefully, to meet the reality television stars. They also had plans to visit Universal Studios and Disneyland, he said.

On Friday, a police officer drove Allevato and his family for an hour to a car rental location in Ontario, California. They were then able to obtain a different vehicle and drove to the hotel that they’d had reservations for.

Despite the tragedy they endured, Allevato says he’s thankful that they escaped with their lives. He hopes they can find a way to complete the trip after the ordeal.

“We’re going to try to finish our vacation somehow and stay,” he said.