REDDING, Calif. Jeff and Nancy Heintz were driving on Interstate 5 from Seattle to their home in Arizona when they saw a large cloud of smoke in the distance.
It was Wednesday afternoon, and a fast-moving wildfire was bearing down on the busy freeway.
Southbound traffic was still flowing smoothly. But 20 minutes later, it came to a standstill.
“It almost looked like an atomic cloud," Jeff Heintz said.
U.S. Forest Service officials said the blaze, dubbed the Delta Fire, broke out about 1 p.m. north of Lakehead, about 25 miles north of Redding. It quickly spread to the surrounding forest. In less than 24 hours, the fire charred more than 15,000 acres.
Smoke was getting heavy in front of the Heintzes vehicle. They were still north of Lakehead, and the wind was blowing from the south, moving the fire toward them.
A huge wall of flames bore down, “burning trees like paper” in their path, Heintz said.
“All of the sudden, we saw big smoke and flames coming over the hill," he said. "I was starting to get nervous when I saw the flames."
A line of 25 to 30 vehicles in front of them prevented the Heintzes from going forward. And vehicles that came to a stop behind them essentially blocked their vehicle in, he said.
“We were just at the mercy of whatever happened,” Heintz said.
He estimated the flames were about 1,000 feet in front of them and approaching fast.
“My wife at this point was pretty hysterical, along with some other people who had left their cars and started to run,” he said.
Numerous photos and videos of the scene showed the fire crowning out in the tops of pine trees. The Forest Service said flame lengths reached as high as 300 feet.
As the flames raced toward them, the Heintzes found a way to escape.
A concrete divider separates the north and southbound lanes of the freeway in the area where the Heintzes were stopped. There was a break in the barrier just large enough for their vehicle to fit through, he said. They fled through the gap and went north.
“Once we were safe and our hearts started to slow down a little bit, our hearts went out to the people in front of us,” Heintz said of the others trapped on the freeway.
“It was quite a harrowing experience,” he said. “It got to the point where we were really close to getting out of our car and starting to run."
The California Highway Patrol did not have an official count of the number of vehicles burned in the fire. But on Wednesday night, after the fire had moved through the area, two burned big rigs remained in the roadway. A few others also were abandoned on the freeway, which was closed to traffic.
A Forest Service spokeswoman said Wednesday night she hadn’t heard of any injuries connected with the fire.
The Heintzes had seen wildfires before and had driven through areas where brush burned along the sides of the road. But this was much more intense, Heintz said.
“This was a life-or-death thing,” he said.