Around 100 hikers and backpackers were rescued Tuesday morning in the High Sierra after being trapped by the Creek Fire for several days.
The California Army National Guard has been sending Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters out in Fresno County since the fire first broke out. While crews were able to rescue dozens of families camping in the Mammoth Pool area over the weekend, accessing rugged backcountry trails has been a much more delicate operation.
“The air crews have made several attempts both during the day and also at night to get into those individuals that are in need of being rescued,” said Col. David Hall. Officials had put out word to stranded hikers to shelter together in specific areas. “All of them are very, very difficult to get to.”
The smoke greatly reduced visibility in the area and crews had to call off their search late Monday night.
But rescue flights began again Tuesday in the predawn darkness and made several successful airlifts.
Joe Ebright and his two teenaged sons were among the people rescued.
“It’s been so hard,” said his wife Lisa Ebright. “Waiting for them, seeing the planes come and no one comes out, we’re not hearing from them. I’m so happy. I know I’m crying but they’re happy tears.”
Officials say they do not know exactly how many people may have been on the trails when the fire erupted. The John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail both run through the affected areas and are popular with adventurers who may go off the grid for weeks at a time.
One solace to people waiting to hear from their loved ones is that there are safe places in the area to shelter, including the Vermilion Valley Resort where dozens of evacuees gathered Monday.
“They’re safe for now and we’re just hoping that it stays that way and they’re able to get home safely,” said Lindy Budd Monday night. Her 19-year-old brother Riley was among the names of evacuees waiting at the resort.
Officials say they will keep searching as long as there are still reports of people in the area.