Creek Fire Update: National Guard Helicopter Rescue Missions Turned Back By Heavy Smoke; Fire Grows To 135,523 Acres; One Death In Fire
SHAVER LAKE (CBS SF/AP) -- The massive Creek Fire, burning in a timber-rich area of the Sierra, had grown to 135,532 acres by Monday evening but heavy smoke thwarted the efforts of California National Guard helicopters to rescue trapped people in Lake Edison and China Peak.
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The Fresno Fire Department tweeted that "rescue efforts were unsuccessful, military pilots tried valiantly to land but heavy smoke conditions prevented a safe approach, another effort will be made shortly to evacuate the trapped people in Lake Edison and China Peak using night vision."
Fresno Fire Battalion Chief Tony Escobedo said the helicopters had tried several times during the day to make rescues, but were forced to abandon the efforts because of the heavy smoke.
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"The ongoing effort is to get to people that trapped up in the hills by the Creek Fire to safe locations," he said. "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."
Ecobedo also confirmed that the fire had claimed at least one life.
At an evening news conference, Cal Fire said the blaze had grown to 135,532 acres with zero containment. 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.
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 acre," he told reporters. "Before they lost control. It is what it is."
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On Monday afternoon, officials ordered the residents of Auberry to evacuate. A long line of vehicles was bumper to bumper on roadways leading to Highway 168.
Likewise, The town of North Fork was also placed under a mandatory evacuation notice. Madera County sheriff deputies went door to door letting the 3,000 some residents know they should go.
"I've lived in the area for 40 years and I've never seen this type of fire activity," said Madera County Sheriff Tyson Pogue. "We've never seen anything move this fast I think it's the culmination of the drought, the bark beetle...I've just never seen anything like this."
About 50 hikers -- many from the San Francisco Bay Area hunkered down early Monday at the Vermilion Valley Resort, a way station for people following the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails.
"Stranded! But coffee in hand and a crew whipping out breakfast burritos for all," resort officials posted on their Facebook page. "We have about 50 people here and are waiting for word on evacuation plans. Everyone is in good spirit."
Cal Fire spokesman Edwin Zuniga said the blaze was creating its own weather conditions.
"This fire was able to create its own climate," he said 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."
On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the region as firefighters including crews from Santa Rosa and Oakland raced to join the fight from around the state.
The advancing flames had left a path of destruction through the small community of Big Creek -- a Southern California Edison company town adjacent to the century-old Big Creek Hydroelectric Project.
"About half the private homes in town burned down," local resident Toby Wait told the Fresno Bee. "Words cannot even begin to describe the devastation of this community. And it is a very close-knit community."
Wait was able to flee with his family and was hopeful his neighbors also were able to escape.
"We have some memories, we have some photos, we have the clothes on our back and everyone is safe," Wait, whose family is staying with his wife's parents in Fresno, told the paper. "That's really what it comes down to, the safety of human life."
Jeremy Remington was one of 207 people who were trapped and rescued from Mammoth Pool by California National Guard helicopters on Saturday night. 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."
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."
At least two people were severely injured and 10 more suffered moderate injuries. Two campers refused rescue and stayed behind, the Madera County Sheriff's Office said, and there was no immediate word on their fates.
A photo tweeted by the California National Guard showed more than 20 evacuees packed tightly inside one helicopter, some crouched on the floor clutching their belongings.
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.
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."
Lindsey Abbott and her family were guided to safety by a stranger they followed down from their campsite near Whisky Falls.
"It was so hot, you could feel the flames going through the window," she said.
Ashley Wagner was among those rescued, along with two relatives and a friend. They were trapped in Logan's Meadow behind Wagner's Store, a 63-year-old business run by her aunt that was destroyed.
"My family's history just went up in flames," she told a Fresno television station.
Jay, a firefighter from the Pacific Northwest, was among those manning the fire lines. He simply posted: "The past 50 hours has been the most insane experience of my life fighting the #Creekfire."
Gillis Jones posted on Sunday -- "County sheriff's and fire crews just escorted nearly 50 families from China Peak near in Sierra National Forest. There was an attempted airlift by National Guard helicopters, but the smoke and other factors prevented it."
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