By Associated Press
Fresno Bee via AP
SHAVER LAKE, Calif. — 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 threatened power outages for millions.
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.
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 north of Los Angeles.
The fire had charred more than 71 square miles of timber with no containment. Temperatures in the area topped 100 degrees.
Temperatures in the fire zone were in the 90s, but that was cool compared to many parts of the state. Downtown Los Angeles reached 111 degrees. and a record-shattering high of 121 degrees was recorded in the nearby Woodland Hills neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley.
It was the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County, according to the National Weather Service. The mark rivaled the high in California’s Death Valley, typically the hottest place in the country.
Meanwhile, downtown San Francisco set a record for the day with a high of 100, smashing the previous mark by 5 degrees.
“By our calculations, over 99% of California’s population is under an Excessive Heat Warning or Heat Advisory today,” the weather service in Sacramento tweeted Sunday afternoon.
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.
Power usage was expected to peak at 6 p.m., and no significant outages had been reported by then. The city of Glendale near Los Angeles implemented a very small blackout that local authorities promised would last only an hour.
Pacific Gas & Electric /zigman2/quotes/202583141/composite PCG +1.11% , 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 northeast of Fresno. It’s surrounded by thick pine forests and is a popular destination for boating and fishing.