Brush fires erupt off westbound Interstate 8 in El Cajon

Burning pickup truck sparked fires, officials say

SAN DIEGO - A pickup truck with a faulty exhaust system sparked a series of brush fires alongside Interstate 8 around the El Cajon-La Mesa border Friday, briefly closing part of the freeway, disrupting trolley service and prompting the evacuation of a nearby secondary school.

The motorist, a 37-year-old Santee man, entered the freeway at West Main Street shortly before 1 p.m. and headed west, unaware that emissions from his vehicle's tailpipe were igniting roadside foliage, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The motorist continued on for several miles before pulling off at Grossmont Boulevard. He then looked underneath the truck and realized that the catalytic converter was "glowing red" and the engine was burning, CHP public affairs Officer Brian Pennings said. Several passers-by helped him douse the flames with a fire extinguisher.

By then, flames were moving up hillsides in four spots alongside the northern side of the freeway, briefly threatening a Mormon Church on Murray Drive in La Mesa and prompting administrators at nearby Grossmont High School to clear everyone off the campus as a precaution.

Grossmont High students and staff members were directed to go to Harry Griffen Park.

A parent of a Grossmont High student told 10News the school notified parents of the fire and evacuation via email and a phone call.

"I had come out of class and saw everyone running to the front of the school, then I saw this huge ball of fire and I didn't know if it was at the school or across the freeway," said Grossmont High student Michael McCarter-Crellin.

Alerted by cellphone calls from their children, many parents also tried to get to the high school to pick up their children where city streets soon clogged with traffic.  

"I thought, 'Wow, something major is going on,' but I'm glad my daughter called to say the fire was near the school not in the school," said Jose Perez, who found his daughter Paola walking toward him.

The westbound side of the route was fully closed while firefighters doused the blazes, which took about a half-hour, said Sonny Saghera, a spokesman for Heartland Fire & Rescue. Trolley runs through the area also were delayed for about 20 minutes, he said.

As firefighters tackled the flames, drivers on the freeway were simply stuck as all westbound traffic was blocked.  

"I tried to get off the nearest exit, but missed it, so then I was just stuck for about 30 to 40 minutes," said Michael Thompson, one of a number of people waiting in their cars on the freeway.

No structural damage or injuries were reported.

Administrators at the evacuated high school got an all-clear shortly before 2 p.m., said Catherine Martin, a spokeswoman for Grossmont Union High School District. By then, it was the end of the school day for most students anyway, so the majority of them did not return to campus, Martin said.

The man whose truck ignited the blazes told investigators he had just bought the vehicle from a private party in Ramona and was on his way to a garage to get it checked out when the mechanical problem occurred.

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