More than 200 people had to be rescued by helicopters early Sunday when a fast-growing wildfire cut off their only escape route near Mammoth Pool Reservoir northeast of Fresno, California.
“There were several critical patients,” Fresco County EMS Director Dan Lynch told KPMH. “Some with broken bones. Some with burns. Many with lacerations and abrasions.”
The Fresno Bee reported that at least 20 people were injured in the blaze, which is being called the Creek Fire.
The fire, which began about 6:45 p.m. PDT Friday, has forced evacuations in Fresno and Madera counties. It grew to more than 71 square miles on Sunday and was 0% contained. The cause is still being investigated.
The National Guard, along with fire and law enforcement agencies from Fresno and Madera counties, conducted the rescue operation.
Two Blackhawk helicopters and one Chinook flew those rescued to the National Guard base at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, according to KFSN. A total of 207 people were airlifted, Forest Service spokesman Daniel Tune told KSEE.
In an early estimate, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post that more than 150 people were cut off at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir in the Sierra National Forest when the fire exploded in size.
They were told to shelter in place — even if it meant getting into the water, Tune told the Bee.
All together, at least 224 people were rescued from the Mammoth Pool Reservoir area, Madera County Sheriff Tyson Pogue told CNN.
“The situation only can be described as just hellish conditions out there for those poor people,” Pogue said.
Lindsey Abbott was camping with her family near Whisky Falls in Madera County when the fire forced them to flee.
Soon they were lost and surrounded by fire, Abbott told KFSN.
“It was so hot, you could feel the flames going through the window,” she said.
“Seeing all the fire that had completely covered our main road, I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know what we are going to do or where we were going to go or how this is going to end’.”
Fortunately a stranger guided them to safety.
In Madera County, evacuations were advised late Sunday morning for the Bass Lake and North Fork areas. Earlier, evacuations were ordered in Cascadel Woods, Kinsman Flat subdivision, Mammoth Pool, Whisky Falls, Clover Meadow, Arnold Meadows, Minarets, all campgrounds off Minarets Road, all campgrounds off Beasore Road north of Grizzley Road.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office on Sunday ordered a mandatory evacuation for the Shaver Lake area from Shaver Lake to Littlefield Road. Earlier evacuations were ordered for all of Huntington Lake, Camp Sierra and Big Creek.
Eastbound Highway 168 at the four line in Prather is also closed to all motorists and there is no timeline for when it will reopen.
At least 800 personnel consisting of 25 engines, five hand crews, three dozers, two helicopters and three air tankers have responded to the blaze.
Southern California Edison evacuated its Big Creek Facility, and the utility’s transmission lines are being threatened by the fire, spokesman Ron Gales told KSEE. More than 2,000 customers are without power in the Shaver Lake area.
Huntington Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Donnelly told the Visalia Times Delta the fire destroyed the elementary school and about half of the homes in the town of Big Creek.
The fire then raced about 2,000 feet up the side of a mountain, the chief said.
“As the fire comes up that 2,000 feet it creates this huge wind and it preheats everything above it,” Donnelly said. “And so you’ve got this thunderstorm that builds and we had cumulus clouds over 55,000 feet over Huntington Lake.”
“It was like midnight out there and lightning and thunder coming out of the smoke cloud that the fire created,” he said. “Scary, yeah, we were doing lookout. Scary’s the right word.”
Much of California is under an excessive heat warning with an increased fire risk.
Cal Fire said nearly 12,500 firefighters were battling 22 major fires in the state, The Associated Press reported.
Many parts of California may see triple-digit temperatures through Monday.
Expected high winds and heat could create even greater fire danger beginning Tuesday, and Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, warned customers it might cut power.