Hundreds airlifted to safety in California as wildfires rage

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, one several fires that broke out amid record-breaking temperatures that baked the state.

Several blazes have broken out in the state amid record-breaking temperatures

Firefighters battle a brush fire in Jamul, Calif., on Sunday. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)

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. Two campers refused rescue and stayed behind, the Madera County Sheriff's Office said.

A photo tweeted by the National Guard showed at least 20 evacuees crammed inside one helicopter, crouched on the floor clutching their belongings. In another photo taken on the ground from the cockpit, the densely wooded hills surrounding the aircraft were in flames.

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.

Dozens of evacuees are seen onboard a California National Guard Chinook helicopter on Saturday. (California National Guard via AP)

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.

Juliana Park recorded video of flames on both sides of her car as she and others fled down a mountain road.

"A backpacking trip cut short by unforeseen thunder, ash rain, and having to drive through literal fire to evacuate #SierraNationalForest in time," she tweeted.

"Grateful to the SNF ranger who led us down … wish we got her name."

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 told KFSN-TV in Fresno.

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.

WATCH | Dozens of evacuees exit California National Guard helicopter:

California wildfires force dramatic rescue

1 year ago
More than 200 people trapped by a California wildfire were airlifted from a campground in the Sierra National Forest on Sunday as the state sets a record with more than two million acres having been consumed by fire this season. 2:06

"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.

A landowner clears brush as a fire approaches in Jamul on Sunday. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)

"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."

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.

Officials warn of possible power outages

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. Temperatures in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles reached 47 C on Saturday, and it could be even hotter on Sunday, forecasters said.

Officials urged people to conserve electricity to ease the strain on the state's power grid and avoid rolling blackouts.

A helicopter makes a water drop over a fire in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on Sunday. (Richard Vogel/The Associated Press)

"These outages were avoided Friday and Saturday due in large part to individual conservation efforts, but even more conservation efforts are needed today," Gov. Gavin Newsom's office said in a statement Sunday.

The Creek Fire forced the closure of a 915-megawatt hydropower station in Madera County, further constraining grid resources, the statement said.

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.


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