Family drives through Southern California wildfire: 'It was terrifying'

Story highlights

  • Solimar Beach fire is now 60% contained
  • Wildfire was caused by downed power lines, fire officials say
  • "Our car could have exploded," woman says of family's drive through fire

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 to be 30 minutes away. They saw no roadblocks.
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."
    By Sunday morning, the 1,200-acre fire was 60% contained, according to the Ventura County Office of Emergency Services. Officials said crews continued to make significant progress mopping up hot spots.
    Authorities were able to reopen U.S. Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway, which is also designated as California Highway 1, in Ventura County on Saturday. The heavily traveled corridors, which had been closed in both directions, feature scenic vistas of the ocean and mountains.
    Authorities are asking motorists to use caution around equipment working along Highway 101.
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    Maks and her family were driving on the highway after attending the NBA game in Los Angeles between the Lakers and Clippers, and were headed to their holiday home in Santa Barbara about 11 p.m. Friday. Maks' parents and two brothers were visiting from Haarlem, 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 Department 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.
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    The fast-moving blaze burned through Christmas night and into Saturday, according to Ventura County fire spokesman Capt. Mike Lindbery.
    At the height of the fire 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.
    Mother Nature wasn't doing much to help, with clear or mostly sunny skies forecast for the next week, according to the National Weather Service. But wind was an even bigger problem, including sustained winds of 15 to 20 mph on Saturday and gusts as strong as 30 mph.
    Windy conditions were expected to continue into Sunday.
    While it's far from the biggest wildfire California has faced in recent memory, the Solimar Fire is affecting not only travelers but also residents.
    People in the Solimar Beach area were ordered to leave their homes but that mandatory order was lifted late Saturday afternoon, fire officials said. A voluntary evacuation notice was also lifted for people in Faria Beach, a short distance up the coast. However, the nearby Emma Wood Campground will remain closed until further notice. The Red Cross shelter was deactivated.