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Newsom Salutes Heroic National Guard Crews In Creek Fire Rescues -- 'They Went In Anyway'

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) -- Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday saluted "the courage and conviction and the grit" of the National Guard helicopter crews that flew in to save hundreds of campers trapped by the Creek Fire as he outlined progress made across the state during this historic fire season.

Newsom began his comments on Tuesday by once again pointing out the huge increase in fire activity from year to year. While in 2019 the state had  just short of 5,000 fires that burned 118,000 acres by early September, this year the state has battled over 7,600 fires that have consumed a record 2.3 million acres.

Newsom said the term "historic" seems to be getting overused to describe the current state of California's wildfire situation.

"'Historic' is a term we seemingly often use here in the state of California, but these numbers bear fruit to that assertion that this is historic. This is the largest fire season we've had in terms of total acreage impacted in some time back, recorded recent modern history, but nonetheless, you put it in comparison terms, contrast to last year it's rather extraordinary the challenge that we face again so far this season 2020."

Just since mid-August, the state has had over 900 fires statewide with 25 major fires leading to the evacuation of 42,200 residents and the burning of 1.8 million acres. So far, eight people have died in the fires and over 3,400 structures have been destroyed.

Newsom ran down the progress Cal Fire has made on the fires that were started by dry lightning from the freak thunderstorms last month, noting that the state had made significant progress on some of the larger fires, but cautioning that current wind events could change high containment numbers with the SCU and LNU Lightning Complex fires.

The governor also talked about the massive Creek Fire that broke out over the weekend in Fresno and Madera counties, saluting the National Guard rescue crews that had flown Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters in to save over 200 trapped campers on Sunday and had brought another large group to safety early Tuesday morning.

"People are remarkable in these moments and selfless in these moments. Again that was exampled other the weekend in these heroic efforts of these two helicopters that landed, rescuing 214 individuals in very difficult circumstances," said Newsom. "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."

Newsom said another 164 people had been flown out during the latest rescue efforts.

"They stretched the limits of these evacuation protocols and the helicopters themselves and I think deserve just tremendous credit and, of course, our personal admiration here at Office of Emergency Services for a job well done. It's where training meets the moment, but it always takes the courage and conviction and the grit of real people doing real work. So again, a great debt of gratitude to those men and women," said Newsom.

Among the new fires Newsom mentioned was the incident that began on Saturday morning at El Ranch Dorado Park in San Bernardino County. Cal Fire officials said an unidentified couple chose the location to reveal their baby's gender.

They were accompanied by their young children and had a friend or relative videoing on a cell phone, said Cal Fire Capt. Bennet Milloy.

The family went into a field and fired off the device, which quickly ignited four-foot grasses, Milloy said. Conditions were perfect for a fire to spread quickly — triple-digit temperatures, low humidity, dry vegetation and a stiff breeze.

Surveillance video showed the couple frantically race to their vehicle to retrieve water bottles to try to extinguish the flames. It was futile and they called 911.

"It's a reminder that the vast majority of fires that we experience on an annual basis come from individuals making bad decisions or by simple neglect and accidents; meaning 90+ percent of the fires we experience on an annual basis are man-made fires," Newsom said.

He noted an investigation is underway into the cause of the El Dorado Fire and that details would be released as the investigation progressed.

The governor pointed out how the latest heat wave had impacted the fire activity as well as the strain that was placed on the state's electrical grid over the holiday weekend. He also thanked the state's residents for conserving energy during the flex alert issued by Cal ISO.

Newsom said it is "crystal clear" that California must continue to fundamentally address the climate change causing these extreme events that are now becoming the new normal and disproportionately impacting the state.

"I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers. It simply follows, completely inconsistent that point of view with the reality on the ground, the facts as we are experiencing. You may not believe it intellectually, but your own eyes, your own experiences tell a different story, particularly out here the west coast United States and particularly here in the state of California."

Newsom also noted that the retooled Public Safety Public Shutoffs procedures with utility companies include providing support for those who are vulnerable during the power shutoffs.

"We also have different protocols and partnerships with the counties on making sure those that are impacted have support. Many of those are in place, we'll continue to monitor the success of that effort," said Newsom. "We put tens of millions of dollars in the budget in anticipation of these PSPS protocols. We're now utilizing those dollars, distributing those dollars and making sure these centers are up and operational to protecting those most vulnerable impacted by PSPS."

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