SHAVER LAKE, Calif. - More than 200 people were airlifted to safety early Sunday after a fast-moving wildfire trapped them in a popular camping area in California’s Sierra National Forest, one several fires that broke out amid record-breaking, triple-digit temperatures that baked the state.
The California Office of Emergency Services said Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters were used for the rescues that began late Saturday and continued overnight. At least two people were severely injured and 10 more suffered moderate injuries. Two campers refused rescue and stayed behind, the Madera County Sheriff's Office said.
A photo tweeted by the National Guard showed at least 20 evacuees crammed inside one helicopter, crouched on the floor clutching their belongings. In another photo taken on the ground from the cockpit, the densely wooded hills surrounding the aircraft were in flames.
The wildfire, named the Creek Fire, started Friday and by Saturday afternoon exploded to 56 square miles (145 square kilometers), jumped the San Joaquin River and cut off the only road into the Mammoth Pool Campground, national forest spokesman Dan Tune said. At least 2,000 structures were threatened in the area about 290 miles north of Los Angeles.
Tune said the campers were told to shelter in place until fire crews, aided by water-dropping aircraft, could gain access to the site.
The lake 35 miles northeast of Fresno is surrounded by thick pine forests and is a popular destination for boating and fishing. Bone-dry conditions and the hot weather fueled the flames.
“Once the fire gets going, it creates its own weather, adding wind to increase the spread,” Tune said.
Juliana Park recorded video of flames on both sides of her car as she and others fled down a mountain road.
“A backpacking trip cut short by unforeseen thunder, ash rain, and having to drive through literal fire to evacuate #SierraNationalForest in time,” Park tweeted. “Grateful to the SNF ranger who led us down... wish we got her name.”
Lindsey Abbott and her family were guided to safety by a stranger they followed down from their campsite near Whisky Falls.
“It was so hot, you could feel the flames going through the window,” she told KFSN-TV in Fresno.
Ashley Wagner was among those rescued, along with two relatives and a friend. They were trapped in Logan’s Meadow behind Wagner’s Store, a 63-year-old business run by her aunt that was destroyed.
“My family’s history just went up in flames,” Wagner told the news station.
In Southern California, a fire in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said the fire scorched at least 4.2 square miles of brush and trees.
Bob Fonzi nervously watched the fire race across ridges near his remote home on a winding road.
“If that sweeps around, it comes into my back door,” he told KABC-TV on Saturday. “And the problem with that is there’s no easy access for fire personnel.”
The blaze was just 5% contained Sunday morning.
In eastern San Diego County, the Valley Fire broke out Saturday afternoon and fire officials warned the blaze was burning at a “dangerous rate of speed.” By Sunday morning it had destroyed at least 10 structures after burning 6.25 square miles (16 square kilometers) and prompting evacuations near the remote community of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest. At least two of the lost structures were homes, KGTV reported. There was no containment of the fire.
Cal Fire said nearly 12,500 firefighters were battling 22 major fires in the state. Despite the heat, firefighters were able to contain two major fires in coastal Monterey County.
California has seen 900 wildfires since Aug. 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes. The blazes have burned more than 1.5 million acres (2,343 square miles). There have been eight fire deaths and nearly 3,300 structures destroyed.
The heat wave was expected to spread triple-digit temperatures over much of California through Monday. Temperatures in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles reached 117 degrees on Saturday and it could be even hotter on Sunday, forecasters said.
Officials urged people to conserve electricity to ease the strain on the state’s power grid and avoid rolling blackouts.
“These outages were avoided Friday and Saturday due in large part to individual conservation efforts, but even more conservation efforts are needed today," Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said in a statement Sunday.
The Creek Fire forced the closure of a 915-megawatt hydropower station in Madera County, further constraining grid resources, the statement said.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, warned customers that it might cut power starting Tuesday because of expected high winds and heat that could create even greater fire danger. Some of the state’s largest and deadliest fires in recent years have been sparked by downed power lines and other utility equipment.