Firefighters in central California are searching for people stranded by a fast-moving fire that has already burned an estimated 45,000 acres. The Creek Fire started Friday evening and, fueled by timber and dry vegetation, quickly jumped the San Joaquin River and blocked evacuation routes.
More than 200 people were rescued overnight as military helicopters plucked the stranded from the Mammoth Pool Reservoir in Sierra National Forest, where they were asked to shelter in place after fire blocked the one road leading out of the area. Most of those rescued had minor or no injuries, but several were transported to local hospitals and at least two were "severely injured," the Fresno Fire Department said early Sunday.
"We do believe that there are still other people out in the wilderness, and when daylight breaks, we will be continuing those rescue operations to go out and try to find them and get them to safety as well," Madera County Sheriff Tyson Pogue told CNN on Sunday.
A backpacking trip cut short by unforeseen thunder, ash rain, and having to drive through literal fire to evacuate #SierraNationalForest in time. Grateful to the SNF ranger who led us down... wish we we got her name. #CreekFire @mercnews @sfchronicle @ABC7 @KTVU pic.twitter.com/37Ys7XGJ2a— Juliana Park (@julipdoe) September 6, 2020
Most of those rescued were flown to the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, where emergency responders had set up a triage center to prioritize treatment, The Fresno Bee reported. At least six burn victims were admitted to Fresno's Community Regional Medical Center, according to The Fresno Bee.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire, which is located near the San Joaquin River and the communities of Big Creek and Huntington Lake. Fire crews face steep, rugged terrain and high temperatures, which make extinguishing the fire difficult, Sierra National Forest authorities said.
As of Sunday, the fire was zero percent contained, according to Cal Fire, as giant plumes of smoke up to 50,000 feet tall were visible from the air. Several areas in Madera County were under mandatory evacuation orders.
#CreekFire last 5 hours from 1pm - 7pm PT #timelapse— NWS CWSU Oakland (@NWSCWSUZOA) September 6, 2020
Multiple aircraft reporting tops above 50,000 feet!
Multiple lightning strikes detected #GOES17 #AxisMeadowLakes cam @nvfirecams @AlertWildfire via @NVSeismoLab #cawx #CAfire pic.twitter.com/9qpXp2iDX0
Social media showed videos of people escaping the flames. Smoke from the fire spread throughout the region, filling nearby Yosemite National Park and coloring the sky an eerie orange.
The Creek Fire is just the latest blaze faced by California in a devastating fire season. More than 7,000 wildfires, many sparked by lightning strikes, had already burned over 1.4 million acres by the end of August, Gov. Gavin Newsom said last month.