More than 200 people were airlifted to safety early Sunday after a fast-moving wildfire trapped them in a popular camping area in California’s Sierra National Forest. It was one of several fires that broke out amid record-breaking temperatures that baked the state.
The California Office of Emergency Services said Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters were used for the rescues that began late Saturday and continued overnight. At least two people were severely injured and 10 more suffered moderate injuries.
The wildfire, named the Creek Fire, started Friday and by Saturday afternoon exploded to 145 square kilometres, jumped the San Joaquin River and cut off the only road into the Mammoth Pool Campground, national forest spokesperson Dan Tune said. At least 2,000 structures were threatened in the area about 467 kilometres north of Los Angeles, where temperatures in the city’s San Fernando Valley reached 47 C.
Tune said the campers were told to shelter in place until fire crews, aided by water-dropping aircraft, could gain access to the site. The lake 56 kilometres northeast of Fresno is surrounded by thick pine forests and is a popular destination for boating and fishing. Bone-dry conditions and the hot weather fuelled the flames.
“Once the fire gets going, it creates its own weather, adding wind to increase the spread,” Tune 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 Fresno station ABC30.
In Southern California, a fire in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said the fire scorched at least 11 square kilometres of brush and trees.
Bob Fonzi nervously watched the fire race across ridges near his remote home on a winding road.
“If that sweeps around, it comes into my back door,” he told KABC-TV on Saturday. “And the problem with that is there’s no easy access for fire personnel.”
More than 14,800 firefighters battling blazes
The blaze was just five per cent contained Sunday morning.
In eastern San Diego County, the Valley Fire broke out Saturday afternoon and fire officials warned the blaze was burning at a “dangerous rate of speed.” By Sunday morning it had destroyed at least 10 structures after burning 16 square kilometres and prompting evacuations near the remote community of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest. There was no containment.
Cal Fire said more than 14,800 firefighters were battling 23 major fires in the state. Despite the heat, firefighters were able to contain two major fires in coastal Monterey County.
California has seen 900 wildfires since Aug. 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes. The blazes have burned more than 600,000 hectares. There have been eight fire deaths and nearly 3,300 structures destroyed.
The heat wave was expected to spread high temperatures over much of California through Monday. Officials urged people to conserve electricity to ease the strain on the state’s power grid.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, warned customers Saturday that it might cut power starting Tuesday because of expected high winds and heat that could create even greater fire danger. Some of the state’s largest and deadliest fires in recent years have been sparked by downed power lines and other utility equipment.