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Helicopters evacuate dozens trapped, injured by fast-moving Calif. wildfire

Officials said at least 150 people became trapped Saturday as the Creek Fire exploded to nearly 36,000 acres in one day


Lizzie Johnson and Lauren Hernández
San Francisco Chronicle

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. — A highly dangerous wildfire that ignited in Sierra National Forest Friday evening exploded to nearly 36,000 acres, trapped at least 150 people near a Fresno County reservoir and injured dozens of people who were airlifted to Fresno hospitals.

The Creek Fire — burning near Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake, and Big Creek — is 0% contained and tearing through the rugged, forested foothills of eastern Fresno County.

About 150 people were trapped on Saturday near Mammoth Pool Reservoir, according to the Madera County Sheriff, and ten were injured. Earlier in the day, a spokesman from the Forest Service had estimated that as many as 1,000 people were sheltering there and that people had been told to jump in the water, if necessary.

Shortly before 10:30 p.m., Fresno fire officials said 63 people had been rescued by military helicopters and taken to the Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Two of those rescued were “severely injured,” 10 were “moderately injured,” and 51 sustained minor or no injuries, Fresno fire official said.

A Chinook or CH-47 helicopter was airlifting people from the Creek Fire area late Saturday night, according to CalGuard officials. The first 50 to 60 people were brought to CalGuard army facilities at the Fresno Airport, CalGuard officials said. The helicopter was expected to return to the region to evacuate more people “immediately,” CalGuard officials said.

The first group of people was rescued from the Mammoth Pool reservoir area, said Capt. Jason Sanchez, a public affairs officer for the California National Guard. Evacuees were triaged at the airport, where some were taken to Saint Agnes Medical Center and Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, and Clovis Community Medical Center for treatment. For evacuees who were not injured, Sanchez said Army personnel were working to find lodging for them.

Sanchez — who was at the Fresno airport on Saturday night — told The Chronicle that while it was unclear how many people still needed rescuing from the fire area, multiple emergency crews were waiting for more evacuees at the airport. Firefighters and paramedics were on standby, as well as Army and air crews with the National Guard, and county emergency personnel.

“We’re all here, we’re all integrated (and) working together to help the evacuees, and to triage any medical need,” Sanchez said. “It’s quite an impressive sight to see here. For the first group of evacuees to arrive, it was all clock work. Efficient.”

Around 9 p.m. Saturday, deputies were going door to door evacuating residents from Beasore Meadows — also threatened by the Creek Fire. “Please do not wait for notification to evacuate if you do not feel safe,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet.

As temperatures soar in a record-breaking heat wave, the wildfire’s spread has proven explosive, defying efforts to contain it. Smoke from the fire could be seen from airplanes.

The 1.3-million-acre Sierra National Forest spans the western slope of the Sierra Nevada and is bounded by Yosemite National Park to the northwest and Kings Canyon National Park to the south. For Labor Day Weekend, it was filled with those celebrating the holiday.

In photos posted on Twitter by Fresno’s Fox 26 News, large recreational vehicles and trucks congregated in a dirt field near Mammoth Pool Reservoir as the fire burned around them, torching pines and sending puffs and gray-brown smoke into the air. Embers streaked through the air like comets.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said in a tweet that a “massive pyrocumulus cloud [is] indicative of extreme fire behavior, & pyrotornado may have occurred” on the Creek Fire.

The Rock Creek and Fish Creek campgrounds have been evacuated, along with the Kinsman Flat and Arnold Meadows subdivisions, Cascadel Woods, Mammoth Pool, Whiskey Falls, Clover Meadow and Minarets.

The Creek Fire is one of several new wildfires that were burning in California as of Saturday evening, along with the 1,500-acre Valley Fire in San Diego County and the 3,000-acre El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County.

The cause of the Creek Fire remains under investigation.


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