Record-setting Calif. wildfires burn 2M+ acres
This year's fires surpassed the 1.98-million-acre record set in 2018
Cynthia Dizikes and Sarah Ravani
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — Fire crews battled numerous blazes across the state Monday as high temperatures and ominous winds meant thousands of people across California were facing expected power shut-offs.
With the new fires roaring over the holiday weekend, flames have burned more than 2 million acres in California this year, setting a dismal record.
The fires forced evacuations and the closure of national forests throughout the state and prompted daring rescues, highlighting the extremes that this year’s fire season has brought. The new blazes came even as firefighters gained a handle on the big fire complexes burning around the Bay Area.
New evacuations were ordered for Fresno and Madera counties as firefighters struggled to get a handle on the Creek Fire, a massive, fast-moving blaze that scorched dried vegetation in the Sierra National Forest and threatened thousands of structures.
The Creek Fire exploded to 78,790 acres Monday — growing by more than 33,000 acres since Sunday — and was completely uncontained, according to Cal Fire. The fire continued to threaten 5,296 structures. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The blaze isn’t going away anytime soon. Firefighters expect to reach full containment of the Creek Fire by Oct. 15, but the fire is still burning rapidly because of “dead and downed material,” Cal Fire said. Some 80% to 90% of the trees in the area where the fire is raging have died because of the ravages of the bark beetle.
Cal Fire said 14,800 firefighters were battling 23 major fires in the state, the Associated Press reported. California has seen 900 wildfires since Aug. 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes. There have been eight fire deaths and more than 3,300 structures destroyed.
The previous record for acres burned was set in 2018. Fires that year burned 1.98 million acres and killed more than 100, most of them in the deadly Camp Fire that burned through the Butte County town of Paradise.
Because of “unprecedented and dangerous fire conditions” and limited firefighting resources, all campsites and day-use sites in national forests were temporarily closed throughout the state, according to the Forest Service. Campfires, gas stoves and any other kind of ignition source were also banned.
The U.S. Forest Service announced Monday that the Stanislaus, Sierra, Sequoia, Inyo, Los Padres, Angeles, San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests in California would be closed indefinitely because of fire danger.
In the Sierra National Forest, hundreds of trapped people had to be rescued by helicopter Saturday afternoon from the Mammoth Pool Reservoir northeast of Fresno after the Creek Fire blocked the only road leading out of the area.
Pilots with the California National Guard said the flying conditions were the most difficult they’d ever faced — smoke choked out visibility and the winds were gusting erratically. They had to use night vision goggles to see clearly.
“There were points along the route where we were just about ready to say that’s enough, but right about that decision point, the visibility would get a little bit better, we could see the next ridge,” Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond said at a Monday news briefing.
Reports on the number of people trapped at the lake kept growing, alerting them to how dire the situation was. When the officers arrived at the lake, all of the surrounding vegetation was in flames, they said. The crew prioritized evacuating burn victims and those with serious injuries who needed quick medical attention, packing as many people as could safely fit into the aircraft.
The ground rescue was preceded by the dramatic airlift of 214 people and 11 pets who were stranded in the area Saturday as the fire exploded through the dry forest and tore into the camping area.
Two helicopter crews on a Chinook and a Blackhawk flew through smoke, ash and heavy winds to rescue the campers. Twenty, some with burns and broken bones, had to be hospitalized. Two were seriously injured.
The remaining people trapped were rescued Sunday night, said Madera County Sheriff Tyson Pogue.
The U.S. Forest Service was able to get a ground crew through to evacuate about 20 people and 15 dogs. A few horses were left behind and were expected to be brought out Monday, according to the Sheriff’s Office. No information was immediately available on injuries.
“It was very emotional, especially when I looked back and saw children that were the same age as my children,” Rosamond said. “It just felt really good to be able to get them all out.”
A rescue attempt by military pilots using night vision Monday evening to rescue hikers and campers trapped near China Peak and Lake Edison was unsuccessful, the Fresno Fire Department said Monday.
The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park was closed as a precaution Monday afternoon in case the Creek Fire crosses into the park, which remains open.
Thousands more people were evacuated in Fresno County. On Monday, Auberry and North Fork were placed under a mandatory evacuation order. Evacuation orders were also expanded to more mountain communities where firefighters worked through the night to save small towns as the fire roared.
Sheriff’s deputies went door to door to make sure residents were complying with orders to leave. Officials hoped to keep the fire from pushing west into rural towns along Route 41 and possibly Yosemite.
The Creek Fire has charred more than 123 square miles of timber after breaking out Friday. The 850 firefighters on the scene had yet to get any containment after three days of work in sweltering heat.
Another fire in Mendocino County was reported early Monday afternoon. The Oak Fire quickly grew from 3 acres to 25 acres in the span of 10 minutes, forcing dozens of people out of their homes as mandatory evacuations were ordered for parts of the Willits and Covelo areas and closing a section of Highway 101. Cal Fire warned that the blaze has a “rapid rate of spread.” By late Monday, the uncontained blaze had grown to 1,000 acres and damaged one structure.
Despite the heat and wind, firefighters were making progress at three other fires in Northern California, having contained about 80% of the CZU Lightning Complex raging across San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and at least 91% of the fires involved in the LNU Lightening Complex, which is blazing in several counties. Meanwhile, the SCU Lightning Complex fires that have burned 396,624 acres in several counties, including Alameda, Santa Clara and Stanislaus, were 94% contained, according to Cal Fire.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Joaquin Palomino contributed to this report.
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