SHAVER LAKE (CBS SF) — Hours after a National Guard helicopter crew made a dramatic rescue of 13 people trapped in China Peak, the Creek Fire roared into the recreation area Tuesday evening as the massive blaze created its own weather system and continued its march through the bark beetle dead timber in the Sierra.
By early Wednesday, there was still no containment as the Creek Fire grew to over 163,000 acres and has destroyed at least 365 structures. More than 5,000 structures remain threatened and forced some 45,000 people to evacuate. There were more than 1,000 firefighters manning the lines, attempting to slow the progress.
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Among the many challenges those firefighters were facing was the weather. And not the Mother Nature variety. Massive wildfires create their own winds.
“This fire was able to create its own climate,” Cal Fire spokesman Edwin Zuniga told reporters on Monday afternoon. “That’s what is making it so dangerous. It creates the situation for very erratic winds which could spread this fire in all different directions…Eastern winds so the fire activity is increasing on the southern portion near Shaver Lake.”
While the total damage in China Peak was unknown early Wednesday, ski area owner Tim Cohee told the Fresno Bee that some buildings had been destroyed.
“The fire hit the back of the ski area first, but at this point the only structures we know that are burned are some employee housing,” Cohee said.
Had the helicopter not arrived early Tuesday, who knows if those 13 would have survived.
Gov. Gavin Newsom joined a chorus of praise for the bravery of the pilots who have airlifted hundreds to safety over the last several days, braving heavy smoke, flames and the unstable air stirred up by the fire.
“People are remarkable in these moments and selfless in these moments,” he said. “Again that was exampled other the weekend in these heroic efforts of these two helicopters that landed, rescuing 214 individuals in very difficult circumstances. They very easily, very easily, could have turned around and said the smoke made that mission too dangerous but they went in anyway. They saved many, many lives.”
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.
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
Fresno County Sheriff Lt. Brad Purcell told reporters at the Tuesday night briefing that everyone — including law enforcement officers — who had been trapped in at three gathering areas had been safely airlifted out.
“The people we had in the temporary areas of refuge at Sierra Marina, China Peak and back of Edison we were able to safely transport out,” he said. “Throughout the last 48 hours we have removed approximately 200 people from these temporary areas. That includes our deputy sheriffs that were stuck back there and some officers from the Fresno police department. Along with hikers, campers and a couple dogs that people had taken back with them.”
Purcell told the residents who had been evacuated from the mountain communities “to be prepared to be away from your homes for a while.”
The flames were ripping through a heavily forested area that has been devastated by drought and a massive infestation of bark beetles over the last 6 years.
“Fuels continue to be the main influence of the fire with heavy fuel loading from dead and down material,” Cal Fire said in a 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.