More than 200 people have been airlifted to safety after being trapped by a fast-moving wildfire near a popular recreation area in northern California, according to officials.
The evacuees climbed aboard military helicopters on Sunday after the blaze, in bone-dry conditions, cut off ground escape routes from Mammoth Pool Reservoir in the Sierra National Forest, about 45 miles (70 km) northeast of Fresno.
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Flames moved in so fast that at one point people were advised to “shelter in place” – in the reservoir itself if need be.
“Simply extraordinary, lifesaving work by the @CalGuard airlifting more than 200 people to safety overnight from the imminent danger of the #CreekFire,” army General Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said on Twitter.
Twenty of the evacuees were transported to area hospitals, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office reported on Twitter. At least two were seriously injured, according to the Fresno Fire Department.
Hokanson tweeted a dramatic picture taken from the cockpit of a helicopter showing it surrounded by blazing trees.
Photo from the cockpit of a @CalGuard Chinook minutes ago rescuing people trapped by the #CreekFire So proud of our National Guard pilots and crews. Thoughts with those affected by this unfolding disaster. pic.twitter.com/GDV9J62MBT
— General Daniel Hokanson (@ChiefNGB) September 6, 2020
He said dozens of those rescued had been brought to California National Guard facilities and were met by military medics and civilian first responders.
State of emergency
California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in five counties later on Sunday, including Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, San Bernardino and San Diego, according to a statement published by the governor’s office.
The Creek Fire consumed more than 14,500 hectares (36,000 acres) and threatened numerous mountain communities after igniting on Friday and exploding on Saturday, authorities said.
California has been baking with record-breaking temperatures expected over the Labor Day weekend, bringing dangerous fire weather conditions.
The high temperatures come as the state is recovering from another heatwave in mid-August and devastating wildfires that have burned about 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) in the last three weeks.