SHAVER LAKE (CBS SF) — The Creek Fire continued to burn “under extreme conditions” Tuesday night, according to Cal Fire, and grew to 152,833 acres. The Red Flag Warning for extreme temperatures, low humidity and high winds expired at 11 p.m.
Early Tuesday morning, after several failed attempts, a California National Guard helicopter crew braved winds, smoke and flames to rescue 13 people who had been trapped in China Lake by the advancing flames of the Creek Fire.
The dramatic airlift began around 3 a.m. and ended a more than two-day, anxiety-ridden wait after any escape route for the 13 was blocked by the blaze.
According to the California National Guard crews had flown three rescue flights — a Cal Guard UH-60 Black Hawk airlifted 13 people from China Peak at 3:16 a.m. A SH-60 Seahawk from Naval Air Station Lemoore had airlifted 11 people from Lake Edison at 4:44 a.m. A Cal Guard UH-60 Black Hawk Airlifted 11 people from Lake Edison at 5:42 a.m.
More missions followed — in all nearly 200 people were rescued with 150 be airlifted out of Edison Lake.
Among those airlifted to safety was a group of hikers, including several from the Bay Area, trapped at the Vermilion Valley Resort, a remote way station for hikers on popular Pacific Crest and John Muir trails.
Early Tuesday, the resort posted on Facebook: “Evacuation of the hikers is underway.”
Kathryn Palmer, a news editor at the Petaluma Argus, was a hiker who was carried to safety.
“Relieved to report I’m among approx 50 rescued this morning from Lake Edison near the Creek Fire,” she posted on Twitter. “It’s been surreal to go from reporting on LNU fire evacs a few weeks ago to being one of the first 10 flown out of #VVR in the Sierras in a Black Hawk.”
Relieved to report I’m among approx 50 rescued this morning from Lake Edison near the #CreekFire. It’s been surreal to go from reporting on #LNU fire evacs a few weeks ago to being one of the first 10 flown out of #VVR in the Sierras in a Black Hawk. pic.twitter.com/DEPUCZCK6y
— Kathryn Palmer (@KathrynPlmr) September 8, 2020
Local resident Sheri Mauro posted that the sound of helicopters in the air was a wonderful way to awaken early Tuesday.
“Waking up to the sounds of helicopters overhead last night brought a much-needed sense of relief to a high-anxiety wknd with so many friends & family managing evacuations,” she posted on Twitter. “Ready for some good news after too much of the opposite.”
All-day long Sunday, National Guard crews had attempted to rescue more than 50 people who had become trapped since the fire erupted on Saturday in the Sierra north of Fresno. It is a mountainous region filled with a forest ravaged by years of drought and a massive infestation of bark beetles.
But those attempts had to be abandoned because of the heavy smoke.
“The ongoing effort is to get to people that trapped up in the hills by the Creek Fire to safe locations,” Fresno Fire Battalion Chief Tony Escobedo said on Sunday evening. “The locations vary — they are at different elevations. So the difficulty of the helicopters trying to get through the smoke has proven a challenge during the day. They weren’t able to land several times, several attempts throughout the day.”
“We are going to try to do it again this evening with their night vision capabilities. We have reports of 50 people or more (trapped). We have three different locations that we are told where people are who need to be rescued. We don’t know the variety of injuries if any at all.”
Thousands of dead trees were fueling the blaze that quickly had grown to more than 143,929 acres by Tuesday morning. The fire blazed a destructive path through the small town of Big Creek and ripped through the small communities that lined Shaver Lake and other popular vacation spots.
Away from the historic rescues, the fire continued to destroy homes, businesses and other structures, among them the historic Cressman’s General Store near Shaver.
While Sunday night was borderline miraculous from a building preservation standpoint, last night was just the opposite. High winds did exactly what was feared. This is the beloved Cressman’s general store near Shaver pic.twitter.com/jKFTPuhxxk
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) September 8, 2020
Cal Fire spokesman Seth Brown said the flames that consumed Cressman’s was driven by strong winds early Tuesday morning. Also heavily damaged was the historic Shaver Ranch.
At an evening news conference, a Cal Fire official said — “We have sustained pretty heavy structure loss.” The blaze was threatening 5,296 structures and had forced hundreds of campers and local residents to evacuate.
“Fuels continue to be the main influence of the fire with heavy fuel loading from dead and down material,” Cal Fire said in morning news release. “The timber in the area has approximately 80-90% tree mortality from the bark beetle.”
Fresno County Admin Officer Jean Rousseau echoed those concerns.
“We were worried about this potentiality with all the tree mortality up the mountain the last couple years,” he said.
— David Taub (@TaubGVWire) September 7, 2020
Rousseau said firefighters waged an intense battle early Monday to halt the flames near Shaver Lake.
“They have a really hard fight last night to save Shaver Point and they saved it,” he said. “Very few structures if any fell… We’ll know more in the next few days.”
Rousseau said in the fire’s early hours crews had the blaze limited to a few acres before it exploded out of control.
“They had it down at one point to a third of an acre,” he told reporters. “Before they lost control. It is what it is.”
Stories of dramatic and frightening escapes flooded social and traditional media. They included a Los Angeles mother and her children who were caught up in the explosive fire at Mammoth Pool and airlifted to safety.
“When people ask me, I tell them I experienced hell on Earth,” Heidi Orellana told CBS Los Angeles.
Orellana said she feared the worst and believed the fire would take her life.
“There were a lot of people that needed help, people were getting burned, cars were jammed,” she said. “We got containers, plastic containers and we started putting water to the cars so the cars wouldn’t get on fire.”
Over 150 people spent about an hour in the reservoir to escape the growing flames. At least two people were seriously injured. A military helicopter finally landed in the middle of the inferno to rescue the people waiting.
“My kids didn’t want to go without me,” Orellano said. “They got to a point, they thought that if we were going to die, we should die together.”
Jeremy Remington was also among 207 people trapped and rescued from Mammoth Pool. But before he was airlifted out, he posted a frightening video on Twitter.
“We are at Mammoth Pool and we are completely surrounded, trapped,” he said. “There is fire on all sides, all around us. All the roads are burnt.”
Jeremy Remington is one of 207 people that was trapped and rescued from Mammoth Pool. He got to Fresno sometime after midnight.
— Dennis Valera (@dennisreports) September 6, 2020
Among those who came to Remington’s rescue was California National Guard Cpl. David Hall. Rescue crews decided to load as many people on board as possible on the second run to the campsite as weather conditions deteriorated.
“On that second round — when it was more important to get everybody out — it was important that they brought everybody on, secured what they could and then everybody else ended up taking a seat on the floor,” Hall said at Sunday news conference. “We do not like to operate this way but because of the circumstances of this being an urgent situation threatening life, the pilots and command made a smart decision by asking them to get on the helicopter and loading as many as they could on that lift.”
Juliana Pack was on a hiking trip when the flames began to race through the woods. She posted a video on social media of her escape driving through a road surrounded by fire.
“I think if we would have stayed just 10 minutes more, we might have been so lucky,” she said.
A backpacking trip cut short by unforeseen thunder, ash rain, and having to drive through literal fire to evacuate #SierraNationalForest in time. Grateful to the SNF ranger who led us down… wish we we got her name. #CreekFire @mercnews @sfchronicle @ABC7 @KTVU pic.twitter.com/37Ys7XGJ2a
— Juliana Park (@julipdoe) September 6, 2020
On Sunday afternoon, the fire was threatening a marina and cabins along Shaver Lake, where Jack Machado helped friends remove propane tanks from the lodge Cottages at the Point. Sheriff’s deputies went through the town of several hundred residents to make sure people complied with evacuation orders.
“The lake is totally engulfed with smoke. You can’t hardly see in front of you,” Machado said. “The sky’s turning red. It looks like Mars out there.”