California simmers while it burns, but no big power outages

Cover Image
Photo credit California National Guard shows dozens of evacuees are evacuated to safety on a Cal Guard Chinook Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, after the Creek Fire in central California left them stranded. More than 200 people were airlifted to safety after a fast-moving wildfire trapped them in a popular camping area in California's Sierra National Forest. The California Office of Emergency Services said Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters were used for the rescues that began Saturday night and continued overnight. (California National Guard via AP)
By The Associated Press

SHAVER LAKE, Calif. (AP) — Rescuers in military helicopters airlifted 207 people to safety after an explosive wildfire trapped them in a popular camping area in California’s Sierra National Forest, one of dozens of fires burning Sunday amid record-breaking temperatures that strained the state's electrical grid and could lead to planned power outages.

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 California 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 a helicopter cockpit, the densely wooded hills surrounding the aircraft were in flames.

By Sunday afternoon, smoke had blocked the sun and fire threatened a marina and cabins along Shaver Lake. Jack Machado helped friends remove propane tanks from the lodge Cottages at the Point. Sheriff's deputies went through the tiny town to make sure residents complied with evacuation orders.

“The lake is totally engulfed with smoke. You can't hardly see in front of you,” Machado said. “The sky's turning red. It looks like Mars out there.”

While some campers were rescued by helicopters, others made a white-knuckle drive to safety. 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,” Park tweeted. “Grateful to the SNF ranger who led us down ... wish we got her name.”

The wildfire, named the Creek Fire, started Friday and by Saturday afternoon exploded in size, jumped the San Joaquin River and cut off the only road into the Mammoth Pool Campground, national forest spokesman Dan Tune said. At least 2,000 structures were threatened in the area about 290 miles (467 kilometers) north of Los Angeles.

The fire had charred more than 71 square miles (184 square kilometers) of timber with no containment. Temperatures in the area topped 100 degrees (38 Celsius).

The heat wave was expected to spread triple-digit temperatures over much of California through Monday. Temperatures in downtown Los Angeles hit 111 degrees (44 Celsius) and just to the north in the San Fernando Valley it reached 116 degrees (46 Celsius) for the second day in a row, forecasters said.

The exceptionally high temperatures were driving the highest power use of the year and transmission losses due to wildfires have cut into supplies. Eric Schmitt of the California Independent System Operator that manages the state's power grid said up to 3 million customers could lose power for up to four hours Sunday evening.

He said where those outages occur are up to local utilities. The Creek Fire forced the closure of a 915-megawatt hydropower station in Madera County and a wildfire in Southern California nicked out transmission lines carrying hundreds of additional kilowatts.

Cal ISO was projecting a 4,000-megawatt shortfall and urged people to conserve electricity by not using appliances and keeping air conditioners at 78 degrees (25.5 Celsius) or above.

“I think it’s fair to say that without significant conservation and help from customers today we’ll have to have some rolling outages,” Cal ISO Vice President Eric Schmitt said.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, warned customers 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.

The Mammoth Pool Reservoir is about 35 miles (56 kilometers) northeast of Fresno. It's surrounded by thick pine forests and is a popular destination for boating and fishing.

Bone-dry conditions and the hot weather fueled the flames once the fire started and it grew seven-fold to 55 square miles (142 square kilometers) within a few hours Saturday afternoon.

“Once the fire gets going, it creates its own weather, adding wind to increase the spread,” Tune said.

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 ABC30 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.

“My family’s history just went up in flames,” Wagner told the station.

In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that 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 4.2 square miles (11 square kilometers) 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.”

The blaze was just 5% contained Sunday.

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 6.25 square miles (16 square kilometers) and prompting evacuations near the remote community of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest. At least two of the lost structures were homes, ABC10 News in San Diego reported. There was no containment of the fire.

Cal Fire said nearly 12,500 firefighters were battling more than 20 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 1.5 million acres (2,343 square miles). There have been eight fire deaths and nearly 3,300 structures destroyed.

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Weber reported from Los Angeles.